Thursday, July 01, 2004

'Knee-jerk Liberal' and 'Knee-pad Conservative'

Michael Gilleland quotes Edward Abbey to the effect that the counterpart of the knee-jerk liberal is the knee-pad conservative. How are the adjectives functioning in these phrases?

In the post directly previous to this one, I made mention of the alienans adjective. Such an adjective shifts, rather than specifies, the sense of the noun it modifies. Thus 'artificial' in 'artificial leather' alters the sense of 'leather': artificial leather, unlike equine leather, is not a kind of leather. 'Equine' is a specifying adjective.

Now what about 'knee-jerk' in 'knee-jerk liberal'? It is obviously not a specifying adjective. The idea is not that there are two kinds of liberals, the knee-jerk and the non-knee-jerk. The idea is rather than every liberal is knee-jerk: the liberal qua liberal is thoughtless, emotional, 'reflexive.' It is also clear that 'knee-jerk' is not an alienans adjective in the way that 'artificial' or 'decoy' are: every knee-jerk liberal is a liberal, but no decoy duck is a duck.

How should we classify 'knee-jerk' in our example? I'm not sure, but here is a suggestion. Distinguish two classes of alienans adjectives. Adjectives of the first class shift the senses of the nouns they modify in a way that alters their reference. Thus 'artificial' in 'artificial leather' alters both the sense and the reference of 'leather.' Adjectives of the second class alter the senses of the nouns they modify but without altering their reference. Thus 'knee-jerk' tendentiously alters the sense of 'liberal' but without altering the reference of the latter: a knee-jerk liberal is a liberal.

We might say that there are two kinds of sense-shifting adjectives, the strongly and the weakly sense-shifting. Further examples of the latter are 'mean-spirited conservative,' 'corporate Republican' (a Nader favorite), 'greasy Italian,' 'dirty Jew,' 'lying Arab,' etc.