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.