7

I often come across expressions such as

  • the heaven of heavens (the highest of the heavens - YourDict)
  • the king of kings (which can mean the best/greatest of kings - FreeDict)
  • a lunatic of lunatics (the craziest of all/super-crazy - UpWorthy)
  • the show of shows (the best show; there is even a movie with this title)

The first expression is defined as having superlative meaning by the dictionary. It is my own understanding that I have stated between parentheses for the other three examples.

Is it correct to say that this kind of repetitive genitive has superlative meaning? Does this use have a name?


Edit: I looked into of, and I think the best meaning that fits for this construction is:

used when comparing related things:

  • Of all the places we visited, New Zealand was the most amazing. (Cambridge)

In this example I interpret of as among.

Though X of Xs may not be a genitive as I initially thought, possession is still a present connotation, at least figuratively.

12
  • 1
    Perhaps another is "Song of Songs", though I'm not sure whether that phrase is usually understood to have a "superlative" meaning. (BTW, sorry about the edit, that was my mistake!) Sep 8, 2022 at 15:56
  • @MarcInManhattan I heard once someone say that the Hebrew language does use (especially in the Bible) repetition for emphasis. Your example may be one instance of that. I am also thinking of Verily, verily but that's not genitive, although it may have a superlative underlying connotation.
    – fev
    Sep 8, 2022 at 16:00
  • 2
    @fev Some of those Hebrew constructions with "repetitions" got translated into a participle plus a perfect in the Vulgate and thence the KJV. Think of the Psalms’ Expectans expectavi dominum which works out to something like "Awaiting, I awaited the Lord".
    – tchrist
    Sep 8, 2022 at 16:03
  • 1
    @MarcInManhattan No worries, I changed it back because the question made no sense with "Why"...
    – fev
    Sep 8, 2022 at 16:16
  • 2
    Yeah, it's superlative. You can always change the X of Xs to the greatest/biggest/best/... X of all possible Xs, because that's what it means, though the precise dimension in which the superlativity lies is deleted and thus has to be supplied by context. Sep 8, 2022 at 16:52

2 Answers 2

6
+50

The superlative constructions like the king of kings goes back to Old English and it is a borrowing from Biblical Latin (rex regum, saecula saeculorum). It can be ultimately traced back to Hebrew. The book Old English Literature and the Old Testament (edited by Michael Fox, Manish Sharma) mentions that it is a standard way of constructing superlatives in Hebrew and uses the term superlative genitive (or augmentative genitive):

The focus of this article is one specific type of Hebrew syntax adopted in Old English, the so-called augmentative or superlative genitive. In particular, I argue that Cynewulf seems to be aware of the biblical and Hebraic origin of this construction and uses it in his poem Elene to distinguish the diction of the Jewish characters from that of the Christian ones.

In the superlative genitive construction, a noun in any case is modified by the same noun in the genitive plural, raising the meaning of the first noun to the superlative; well-known examples include king of kings, lord of lords, and Song of Songs. Although this construction is used as a means of 'superlation' in pre-Christian Latin, its popularity and wide use in the Christian west is due to its use within the Hebrew Bible and the subsequent translation of the construction into Latin in the Vulgate. The few modern grammars of medieval or ecclesiastical Latin that treat this construction generally attribute its origin to an imitation of the Hebrew.

Seow succinctly defines the Hebrew construction in reference to the opening of Ecclesiastes thus:

The juxtaposition of the singular and the plural of the same noun is the standard way in Hebrew to express the superlative: e.g., ‘king of kings' = 'supreme king' (Dan. 2:37; Ezra 7:12), 'servant of servants' = ‘abject servant (Gen. 9:25), and 'god of gods' = 'highest god' (Deut. 10:17). Thus, hăbēl hăbālim refers to absolute or the ultimate hebel, a word that has been translated as 'vanity."

Absolute superlative is another grammar term used in some sources like the book A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar: Second Edition (by Christo H. van der Merwe, Jacobus A. Naud):

30.4.2. Superlative degree

(1) The absolute superlative, which manifests the outstanding feature, condition or state of something or someone can be expressed by:
(a) A singular noun in the status constructus preceding the indefinite plural form of the same word.

הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים utmost vanities [lit. vanity of vanities] (Eccl. 1:2)‍*

4
  • 1
    Excellent answer. It would be amazing if we could find a source that tackles this superlative genitive in modern English too, because it is extended nowadays to non-biblical contexts, so the structure became almost idiomatic.
    – fev
    Sep 13, 2022 at 10:47
  • Are you sure this use of the word 'superlative' in this context is not essentially metaphorical? After all, 'king of kings' cannot be the superlative of 'king' or of anything else. If I look at the word 'of' in (say) the Cambridge online English dictionary, there is no mention or example of "X of Xs" in a 'superlative' sense. We might think of 'king of kings' in the same way as 'king of Denmark' as in 'in charge of/with power over', which is a recognised use of 'of'. So yes, 'sort of superlative', but not literally superlative.
    – Tuffy
    Nov 2, 2022 at 22:34
  • @Tuffy It is a superlative construction in terms of semantics and per its usage but it is possibly not a canonical superlative. The question was about finding the right term for this construction and I've provided two terms.
    – ermanen
    Nov 3, 2022 at 6:46
  • @ermanen You must forgive me. I was brought up on Latin, Greek and French, of which Latin and Greek have a high degree of inflection, with comparative superlative form built into the formation of adjectives. English, as usual, has a split personality, some following French taggings ('more credible', 'most credible'), some inflecting ('healthy', 'healthier', 'healthiest'), others, like 'good' and 'bad', going off in a different direction altogether 'better', 'best' and 'worse', 'worst'. And yes, your semantic route works. Dictionaries, however, seem not to have identified this 'of' usage.
    – Tuffy
    Nov 3, 2022 at 11:21
0

The words at the top are less specific and marked as layperson and generalist. The words towards the bottom are more specific and marked as super-specialist and super super-specialist. In specialist, the meanings of the terms used in rhetoric (and related to repetition) and suitable for the current use case scenario are given.

Layperson

Emphasis, Superlative expression, Repetition

Generalist

Augmentation by repetition

Specialist

Diacope It is a rhetorical term meaning repetition of a word or phrase with one or two intervening words.

Paregmenon A general term for the repetition of a word or its cognates in a short sentence. Often, but not always, polyptoton.

Reduplication In linguistics, reduplication is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word (or part of it) or even the whole word is repeated exactly or with a slight change. Other terms that are occasionally used include cloning, doubling, duplication, repetition, and tautonym when it is used in biological taxonomies, such as Bison bison.

Super-specialist

Spaced epizeuxis (syn. polyptoton) (rhetoric) The repetition of words in immediate succession for emphasis.

Spaced reduplication

Super super-specialist

Augmentative spaced epizeuxis

Augmentative spaced Reduplication

Augmentative Diacope

1
  • I appreciate your effort to define all these words here, but I am not sure any of those apply to this structure. One term would be enough if you could find reference of this exact structure being named with that term, like @ermamen did.
    – fev
    Sep 19, 2022 at 9:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.