Saturday, April 22, 2017

Word of the Day: “Pigovian” (expanded)

[update of a note originally published  4 Dec 2012]

The lead item in this week’s New Yorker introduces (with considerable fanfare) a new word:  Pigovian, as the adjective derived from the name of an otherwise little-celebrated economist, one Pigou, who, many years ago, floated the idea (which had surely been floating of its own accord, for millennia) that if you make a mess, you should maybe chip in to the costs of cleaning it up.   The author of this “Talk” piece, Elizabeth Kolbert, is a frequent writer on climate-change matters, and her proposal is that the general public now embrace the designation of a carbon tax as “Pigovian”, in that it pays back some of the costs of global warming.
Now, it might well be imagined that the suggestion is superfluous, and that the notion already has a name:  nuisance tax.  Yet that phrase has already long been defined in an entirely unrelated sense:  not of a tax on nuisances, (the way a luxury tax is a tax on luxuries), but (apparently -- it is really not a happy coinage) a tax that is considered to be itself a nuisance (in that it is not large enough to qualify as a burden, say).  As Merriam-Webster © defines it:

an excise tax collected in small amounts on a wide range of commodities directly from the consumer

Yet, even did the old phrase nuisance tax mean what, syntagmatically, it ought to mean, there is an argument for using a more distinctive word for a category that is growing in importance, as ever-wider circles of citizens become alert to what economists have long called the tragedy of the commons.   For, once you have a word like Pigovian, entirely unburdened by other associations, you can readily extract it from the phrase Pigovian tax, and use elliptic derivata like “Pigovian considerations” or “counter-Pigovian” (where “counter-nuisance” here wouldn’t work at all, since it means the opposite of what “counter-Pigovian” would mean, i.e. ‘pro-nuisance’).  Such relationships between morphology and semantics are discussed in my book The Semantics of Form in Arabic, and form the core of the chapter “The Stokes Conjecture”.

[Update 23 April 2017]  This just in:  a Pigovian accord:

So!  Now for the morpho-phonological characteristics of this rather odd-looking word, Pigovian.   The base-form is pronounced pig-OO, yet the adjective comes out pig-OH-vee-an.  Why?

Unlike sturdy old Anglo-Saxon suffixes like -ness, -dom, -hood-, -kin-, or -ly, which allow themselves to be simply tacked-on at the end of a word, leaving all else as is, the Latin-derived -ian is a tyrant, demanding that the stress be moved to the immediately preceding syllable (if it wasn’t already there), and that its vowel (if not tense already) be tensed.  Thus:  Dickens (DIK-enz) vs. Dickensian (dik-ENZ-ee-an), and (with vowel-tensing) Jacob (JAY-kub) vs. Jacobian (ja-KOH-bee an).  (Thus the derivative is pronounced in the mathematical community. An unrelated adjective with a different suffix, Jacobean, relating to history and literature, is pronounced jak-ub-EE-an.)  And as a further impudent exigency, this tyrannical suffix spurns unmediated Anschluss onto a vowel, demanding rather a bridge-consonant -v-:  thus (Bernard) Shaw vs. Shavian (SHAY-vee-an, with both vowel-tensing and inserted bridge).   As well as (in a more roundabout fashion -- this one doesn’t really count) Warsaw vs. Varsovian (rhymes with Nabokovian).  It is thus that our poor unassuming Mr. Pigou (whom I picture rather as Mr. Magoo)) becomes, adjectivally, a roaring shouting syllable-rattling PIGOVIAN.

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We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

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Note:  Strictly, the derivatum should have been Pigouvian, on the model of Peru :  Peruvian.  The word succumbed to the gravitational attracion of the plethora of words in -ovian (a productive category, given all the Slavic names in -ov/-off).  Further, why burden an already ungainly word with the stressed syllable GOO, as opposed to GO ?  This way, it gets to rhyme with a cool studly word like Jovian.

Footnote:  Something in our Teutonic blood  disdains such tricks.  Thus, instead of a morphological equivalent of Pigovian tax, German just says Pigou-steuer.  And rather than submit to the indignity of a  *Hemingwavian (hem-ing-WAY-vee-an), we go with a different suffix altogether, once that leaves vowels as they are and requires no bridge-consonant:  Hemingwayesque.    (Still not very dignified, though, as the suffix here hogs the main stress to itself, and tends to make you think of words like grotesque and burlesque.)

Compare and contrast  Babeuf => Babouvisme.

French in particular is pre-attuned to such vocalic ablaut  by the existence, side by side, of  locally-developed place-names, along with gentilés derived more transparently from the original Latin toponym.  As, Loire (from Latin Liger) => Ligérien.  Such transformations may be found even when the etymon is not Latin, as
   Aisne => Axonais
=> Rhodanien
   Reims => Rémois
and even such acrobatics as
   Seine-Saint-Denis => Séquanodionysien
Compare, in (British) English,  Cambridge => Cantabridgian.

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