One of my math students was recently solving some word problems and gave up on one with the note: "Who knows? What do words mean anymore?"

An amusing comment but also an intriguing syntax. At first I thought my reaction was to anymore being a negative polarity item without much of a negative context, but I think the question syntax licences NPIs (compare "What do words even mean?" and "Do words mean anything?"). Now I think it's just the lack of the negative with which "anymore" tends to be paired.

I wonder, how would you gloss the contribution of "anymore" to this sentence? Has anyone collected more data on this recent use of "anymore" so we can get a fuller picture?

What do words mean anymore?

  • That looks like eggcorning (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eggcorn). – LPH Oct 10 '20 at 22:39
  • I would have thought that here its use was simply a sign of frustration; the earlier words had meaning, but by this stage the ability or will to understand the question had ended. – Henry Oct 11 '20 at 1:19
  • Questions license NPIs; they are a normal environment. And any more, with or without the (silent) space, is a normal NPI that asserts present negative after presupposed past affirmative. There's nothing unusual about it. Except the frustration, I suppose. – John Lawler Oct 11 '20 at 2:08
  • Not necessarily frustration. Seems like a fairly bold statement, let alone a question, to make on a test. Maybe, the student read the question until it no longer made any sense. "Semantic satiation is a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then perceives the speech as repeated meaningless sounds." Maybe, on some level, the question had too many possible answers. Maybe, words never had any real meaning, in the sense that everything is math and physics, which, at the highest levels, can't be put into words. – G. Rem Oct 11 '20 at 2:56
  • @JohnLawler That's what I wrote - it's not the NPI environment that's odd, but specifically the lack of either "not" or yes/no support. Similarly, note the oddness absent in "Do words mean anything anymore?" but present in "Do words have meaning anymore?" P.S. I actually read this as more humour sentiment (even if it plays the role of coping) than frustration; I think there's a slight tongue-in-cheek-ness to the slightly fun syntax. – Luke Sawczak Oct 11 '20 at 4:41

I wonder, how would you gloss the contribution of "anymore" to this sentence?

I would gloss this as "überhaupt noch", since I'm German. That would be the most felicit translation. I wouldn't know how to translate it back, and can only accept this one, following @JLawler's consent. I'm tempted to insert even, but I'm afraid of committing to inflationary use, even.

The glosses

noch, apparently without cognate in English, tranlates only approximately. Its etymology is from *nu- "now" + *kwe- "and" [en.wiktionary]. Personally I'd consider a relation to near, next, (e)nough, *Hnek'-, too, but that's a different story. [DWDS. de] go out of their way to show that there's not a single correct etymology, though they choose their poison from *nu-, too. Personally, I'd like to elaborate on the parallels from their noch 2 to En. nor, but that's a different story.

überhaupt is a mere intensifier, e.g. "what does that even mean, anyhow", for sake of the argument.

How is that relevant?

any- is commonly etymologized from one + -y. This is meaningful perhaps in do you want anymore, and surely elsewhere, too. Nothing to do with the above, so far.

Has anyone collected more data on this recent use of "anymore" so we can get a fuller picture?

In this particular case I want to argue if the phrase is archaic and inhereted by one of your math students--not made up completely de novo from general rules, though not formally breaking any either, insofar as rules are flexible; I still agree that it sounds remarkably different--specificly taking into consideration @JLawler's "normal NPI that asserts present negative" and the stipulated etymology of the possibly related German phrase in *nu- "now, at present" that a similar semantics might underly this instance of a-ny-more as well. At that, a- is easily identified with Old English ae, German je(h) "ever, each" (cp. uncertain ever, Ger. jedoch "although") in a slight of hand, because neither one has a proper etymology, on account of being ultra short. While je can be occasionally identified with ja "yay", gar "thoroughly", etc. (cf. Grimm for more), it will be remembered that the question particle nu, that is evident in many IE branches, exhibits negative polarity.

Hence I would tentatively transcribe "what do words mean now evermore"? Yet, it should have become evident that this is entirely doubtful.

No, I have not "collected more data". I'm positive that the usual secondary sources won't offer any insight, after anyways is the opposite of widely recognized to contain an archaic prothesis that is not just a jocular plural (as I have previously argued here).

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