Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A title misparsed

This morning, I was reading this article at New Statesman, when I came across the following:
Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it's worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what's in it.
The plural clockwork oranges suddenly threw into sharp relief the title of Burgess's book A clockwork orange. For some reason that I am unable to articulate now, if I ever was aware of it, I had always parsed that title like this:
That is to say, I took orange to be a postpositive modifier of clockwork (like proof positive, governor general, the city proper, etc.) instead of clockwork as an attributive modifier of orange, like this:


This was, I must admit and odd and, even to me, puzzling title, but then it's an odd and puzzling book, so I just rolled with it. As I say, it was the plural oranges that made me see the light: adjectives don't do plurals.

I somehow overlooked the frequency of clockwork as a modifier, which should have tipped me off: in COCA, almost 40% of all instances of clockwork are attributive modifiers. Another thing that I was aware of, but which just seemed like more of the weirdness, is that clockwork is rarely--but sometimes--countable, so a clockwork is kinda weird, but not totally beyond the pale.

Perhaps one thing the pushed me to the first analysis was the stress pattern. Usually, an NP with a noun as modifier gets the main stress in the NP. It's a  
  • FAculty office, not faculty OFfice
  • SOCcer ball, not soccer BALL, and  
  • poLICE officers, not police OFficers. 
My impression is that people tend to say a clockwork ORANGE, rather than a CLOCKwork orange. This is the same pattern you get with postpositive modifiers like proof POsitive.

Whatever the reason, what really impressed me is how decades of misapprehension can be overcome by a single choice example.

7 comments:

Q Higuchi said...

The novel is full of play on words, wordplay, word games etc.; parsing the title in different ways may well be part of the fun. (Think of all those Russian words/phrases there, which the reader isn't exactly expected to understand.)

I dare say you were lucky. The fun was spoiled for me when I saw the translated title in Japanese (before I read the original). It was rendered [clockwork-no] [orange], with the postposition 'no' clearly marking 'clockwork' as modifier. Whoever did that owes me a huge bottle of vodka.

Ran said...

I, too, originally misparsed the title, and realized the correct parse only several years after reading it. I don't remember what finally made it "click" for me, though . . .

johnwhoever said...

When I was a lad in Liverpool the expression 'as queer as a clockwork orange', pre-dating the film, was a derogatory epithet for a homosexual. Your misparsing never occurred to me. (Though whether I actually heard this expression or just read it in Fritz Spiegl's Lern Yerself Scouse is lost in the mists of time.)

My own misparsing from around the same time, and I suspect I was not alone, was the expression 'dilute to taste' to be found on bottles of cordial. I always read it as 'in order to taste', whereas now I realize it means 'according to taste'. (Sorry I won't put the grammar tags in.)

Brett Reynolds said...

Thanks, John! I didn't know the expression was associated with homosexuality. I like your reading of "dilute to taste". I'm sure I've got other misparsings I've noticed and then forgotten about. If I bring any to mind, I'll post about them.

Ran said...

> When I was a lad in Liverpool the expression 'as queer as a clockwork orange', pre-dating the film, was a derogatory epithet for a homosexual.

My understanding is that "as queer as a clockwork orange" originally just meant "very queer", and that it only became associated with homosexuality when the adjective "queer" in general did.

strangeguitars said...

I had the same thing happen until I read the book. Another interesting title misparsing is Conrad's The Secret Sharer.

Kate Bunting said...

As a child, I made the same mistake as johnwhoever with a jar of peanut butter marked "Add salt to taste".