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Can anyone remind me of the grammatical term for the apparent misapplication of an attributive adjective, as in the phrase "the naughty step" (where it is not the step itself that is naughty but the person consigned to it)?

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Like "the step where naughty kids sit"? –  Kit Z. Fox Feb 20 '13 at 13:43
Please rewrite the question so that it provides a context. "A "naughty step" should mean some sort of untoward act or behavior. I have no idea what is being asked here & I don't like having to infer questions, because then they're mine, & I don't need to ask myself questions just to answer them in public. Say what you mean & don't ask your readers to read your mind. If KitFox's comment is correct, then it's called metonymy or synecdoche: you decide. –  user21497 Feb 20 '13 at 13:49
@BillFranke the naughty step -- it comes from a habit of making a child sit on a particular stair until they come to reason. –  Andrew Leach Feb 20 '13 at 14:31
@Andrew: Thank you for the clarification. That's what I inferred. It makes sense in KitFox's phrase. –  user21497 Feb 20 '13 at 14:50
@AndrewLeach though the ideal is that it doesn't turn out to be habit-forming. –  Jon Hanna Feb 20 '13 at 14:50

2 Answers 2

It's a form of anthimeria, conversion or functional shift, though in this case it's a double case:

  1. First the adjective naughty is used to form a noun, meaning those who are naughty.

  2. Then this noun is used to modify a noun, much as an adjective would be, meaning something whose purpose is dealing with those who are naughty.

I can't think of any term specifically for an anthimeria that results in the same form, and since adjective → noun conversions are common enough in English, and noun → adjective so common as to barely count as conversions at all, even the double form doesn't strike me as that remarkable, compared to other cases.

There are two interesting features though. The first is that we can see it is being treated more like a noun-adjunct than an adjective by trying to use it predicatively:

Go and sit on the naughty step!

*Go and sit on the step that is naughty!

This also changes adjective order:

The wooden naughty step.

*The naughty wooden step.

We generally put judgements before material, and material before qualifiers or modifying nouns, so the former makes sense, but the latter suggests we are using naughty in its more common adjectival meaning, and the wooden step needs a spanking.

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Sometimes I come to english.stackexchange just to read something like this... –  fgysin Feb 20 '13 at 14:55
That's a very informative response -- does the same apply for a construction such as a "lazy chair" where the chair is one in which to be lazy? –  Questioner Feb 20 '13 at 15:08
That example would be pretty much a spot on comparison with this. The one difference is that it assists laziness, rather than attempts to amend it, so the relationship between the two words is different to that extent, but that's well within the range of the different ways we'd modify one word with another. –  Jon Hanna Feb 20 '13 at 15:22
Homeless shelters, baby food, girlscout cookies Girl Scout: “I only like all-natural foods and beverages, organically grown, . . . .” Wednesday: “Are they made from real Girl Scouts?” –  tchrist Feb 21 '13 at 13:25
metaphor: "1. a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money); broadly: figurative language" & "1. use of a word or expression in a different sense from that which properly belongs to it for giving life or emphasis to an idea; also: an instance of such use: FIGURE OF SPEECH". Metonymy. Metaphor adorns reality. –  user21497 Feb 23 '13 at 0:13

I don't know a single "technical term" for exactly this, but it looks like a "two-stage" process:

1: Adjectival naughty is treated as an adjectival noun:
an Adjective can sometimes function as a Noun; the young, the rich, etc. (the naughty [ones], here).

2: That "intermediate" noun form is then treated as a noun adjunct:
an optional noun that modifies another noun.

In short, it doesn't seem strictly correct to describe the process as "misapplication of an attributive adjective", because the original adjectival sense of "naughty" has already been supplanted by the derived noun sense before recycling as an adjective with somewhat different applicability.

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