Quote from Mindkiller (Ace, 1982) by Spider Robinson:
"If a person who indulges in gluttony is a glutton, and a person who commits a felony is a felon, then God is an iron."
Whether or not you believe that God indulges in irony -- though I would argue that the existence of platypus is strong supporting evidence to the claim -- this is some pretty sweet wordplay. So let's take a look under the linguistic hood and see how it works.
At the most basic level, Robinson is making use of the relationships between "glutton" and "gluttony" and "felon" and "felony", and then extrapolating that relationship to apply to "iron" and "irony", even though a native English speaker knows (or at least, can reasonably assume) that "irony" doesn't have the same relationship to "iron" that "felon" has to "felony". But that's why it's funny! Also, everyone knows that explaining jokes makes them even better. You're welcome.
Okay, so, joke explained. We're done here, right? Heck no! We press on!
What I find really interesting about the linguistics behind this is that usually, if you add -y to a noun, you get an adjective. So today's topic is: morphology! And a little bit of etymology.
A morpheme is the "smallest linguistic unit that has a meaning or grammatical function" (The Language Files, 2007 edition). In English (and many other languages), the meaning of words are changed when suffixes and prefixes are attached to them. For example, adding 's' to the end of nouns will make the noun plural (cat + s = cats, book + s = books, mouse + s = mouses... okay, it doesn't work for all nouns). So 's' is a morpheme that performs a grammatical function, but it's not a word in its own right. Notice that the morpheme 's' has other uses as well--on a verb it can change the tense (run to runs, bake to bakes), and it can indicate possession (the cat's toy, the girls' books) (actually, the possessive 's is called a clitic, and clitics don't act quite like other suffixes, but that's for a different post).
The '-y' suffix in the above quote is also a morpheme... or at least, it seems to be. The most common use of '-y' is adding it to a noun or adjective to give the meaning "having a quality of". For example, hair + y = hairy, ice + y (- e) = icy, and so on. -y is a very flexible suffix in this form: you can add it to just about anything and the person you are speaking to can probably guess what you are trying to say. Heck, Disney used it to name
six five of the seven dwarfs (When I first wrote this I was thinking of which dwarfs have adjective names, but of course, Bashful isn't a -y name. And Bashy has a very different meaning than Bashful... though it seems like they should have similar meanings. I think I have a new post topic! -- AS).
So, -y is a very flexible suffix, and it's been around for a long time and in other languages (English got it from French, which got it from Latin... check out the Oxford English Dictionary for more). When you look up 'felony' in the OED, it lists the -y suffix as part of the etymology of the word. But 'felony' seems to be the result of a -y suffix rule from Common Roman, not from English. That is to say, we don't have the word 'felony' now because someone in England saw another person committing a crime and described the criminal's actions to the police as being "kinda, you know, felon-y"
The fact that 'felony' has older origins than other -y words probably explains why it's a noun and not an adjective the way that 'hairy' and 'icy' are, as are most English words formed by adding a '-y' suffix. The entry for 'gluttony' doesn't mention the -y suffix at all, though it does describe the word as an abstract noun related to 'glutton', so maybe the derivation is there? I'm not sure.
Since 'felony' and 'gluttony' don't adhere to the -y use that we're used to, Robinson can say that 'a person who indulges in gluttony is a glutton, and a person who commits a felony is a felon'. If we tried to use that construction on a typical English -y construction, it wouldn't work:
* A person who indulges in hairy is a hair
* A thing that commits icy is an ice
Normally in English, if we want to go from "noun" to "person who does something with that noun", we need -ist: a person who is on a jury is a jurist; a person who creates novels is a novelist. But -ist words aren't super common, and the OED suggests that -ist can generally only be added to nouns with Latin origins or verbs with Greek origins (a plagiarist plagiarizes, an antagonist antagonizes). So "noun" to "person who does something with that noun" transformations are relatively rare and the morpheme is choosy. Most of the time if we want to use a morpheme to indicate "person who", we use -er to change a verb to a noun. If you bake you are a baker, a speaker speaks, a writer writes, and so on.
So we've almost come full circle: we can see that "felony" and "gluttony" don't follow the usual -y morpheme rule; they also don't follow any of the usual "person who" constructions: you might expect a person who commits a felony to be a felonier (a person who makes things dry is a drier, so you might apply the same rule for the -er suffix). If you knew that 'felony' is a noun you might call someone a felonist (in jurist, the 'y' from 'jury' is dropped, so you might assume it can be dropped here as well). But, well, you'd be wrong. Silly you!
The thing I really like about the way Robinson came up with "God is an iron" is that it's easy to create similar observations. just look up a list of words that all have the same ending, and then find a word that ends in those letters but isn't using the ending as a morpheme. For example, we know that -ist can turn a noun into "person who does something with the noun", but "fist" and "list" aren't using -ist as a morpheme. Here are a few I came up with:
If a child was adopted there was an adoption, and if someone emoted there was emotion, then if there is a bastion, someone got basted.
If a person who plays the bass is a bassist, and a person who is commits arson is an arsonist, then a person who assists you is an ass.
If an adjuster adjusts, and if a tester tests, then a punster punsts.
If you have any suggestions for more, please leave a comment or send me an email: [email protected]