WHY RIGHT?

Geoffrey Pullum has a good piece at Lingua Franca that begins “How and why would an adjective meaning ‘correct’ turn into an adverb meaning (1) ‘accurately’ or (2) ‘completely’ or (3) ‘immediately’? I recently spent an hour with my class on English grammar at Brown University trying to figure that out.” It’s a nice piece of detective work and an illustration of the kinds of things linguists do, and the answer they came up with seems convincing.
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Comments

  1. I wonder about “right away”.
    I think that in British English it often means “completely away”, which more or less fits the pattern Pullum is describing, except for “away” not being a preposition.
    But in American English “right away” more often means “immediately”, which does not fit the pattern so well.

  2. How and why would an adjective meaning ‘correct’ turn into an adverb – I’m not sure it did; the OED gives citations of the adverbial use going back to Old English.

  3. I wonder about “right away”
    On that phrase, the OED advises “cf. straightaway“; and the earliest quotation given for that word (as adverb) actually gives a very nice illustration of the kind of “bridging context” that may have led to the meaning “immediately”:
    1662 S. Tuke Adventures of Five Hours i. (1663) 7 We Prisoners made, were hurri’d streight away To their Quarters.
    If you’re “hurried straight away” somewhere, your motion is both direct (earlier meaning of “straightaway”/”right away”) and immediate (later meaning).

  4. Tom Recht, just the right person to comment on this!

  5. I’m skeptical that the adverb right modifies only prepositions. Consider He ate it right (up).

  6. Somewhere in the Coverdale Psalter is the phrase, “and that right quickly.” I tried to Google it and found myself lost in a thicket of uses obviously derived from that. At any rate, “right” is, or was, still a general-purpose adverb in Appalachia.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    In ecclesiastical usage it’s posher to be “Right Reverend” than merely “Reverend,” and in non-U.S. political usage it’s posher to be “Right Hon.” than merely “Hon.” See also “right royal fuckup.”

  8. Psalm 46: “God shall help her, and that right early.”

  9. in non-U.S. political usage it’s posher to be “Right Hon.” than merely “Hon.”
    No it isn’t. It’s the reverse. An Hon. is the child of a hereditary peer. A Rt. Hon. is a member of the queen’s privy council – likely smarter, but not posher.

  10. Abbu: You’re right about those two specific cases, but Rt. Hons in general outrank mere Hons. For example, barons (in Scotland, only those who are Lords of Parliament), viscounts, and earls are Right Hons, but the children of barons and viscounts, and the younger children of earls, are Hons. If you are deviously entitled to both honorifics, you use Rt. Hon.

  11. There is no question that Hon. is posher than Rt Hon., John. People like Harold Wilson & Enoch Powell were Rt Hons: clever, but their worst enemies wouldn’t have called them posh. Haven’t you read Hons And Rebels? I think they changed the name in the US to Daughters & Rebels.

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps poshness is not quite the right metric. Assuming wikipedia has the order of precedence in England and Wales correct, being a Privy Counsellor puts you ahead of the mere younger son of a viscount but behind his eldest brother.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    How and why would an adjective meaning ‘correct’ turn into an adverb – I’m not sure it did; the OED gives citations of the adverbial use going back to Old English.
    In Old English there was no clear distinction between adjectives and adverbs. Most adverbs were formed from adjectives with the addition of the suffix -e (alternately, this suffix indicated the adverbial function of the adjective). When Middle English started to lose its unstressed suffixes, such as this one, adverbs derived from adjectives lost the -e and became undistinguishable from plain adjectives. Right is one of the words that still function both as an adjective and an adverb. A new adverb with a different meaning, rightly, was later formed from the adjective.

  14. Tom Recht Hon. says:

    Thanks, marie-lucie! So it looks like the adjective->adverb story is spurious, as I suspected.
    Says Jessica Mitford in Hons and Rebels: “Contrary to a recent historian’s account of the origin of the Hons, the name derived, not from the fact that Debo and I were Honourables, but from the Hens which played so large a part in our lives … (The H of Hon, of course, is pronounced, as in Hen.)”

  15. I wonder about “right away”.
    A short quotation from American Notes:
    ‘Dinner, if you please,’ said I to the waiter.
    ‘When?’ said the waiter.
    ‘As quick as possible,’ said I.
    ‘Right away?’ said the waiter.
    After a moment’s hesitation, I answered ‘No,’ at hazard.
    ‘NOT right away?’ cried the waiter, with an amount of surprise that made me start.
    I looked at him doubtfully, and returned, ‘No; I would rather have it in this private room. I like it very much.’
    At this, I really thought the waiter must have gone out of his mind: as I believe he would have done, but for the interposition of another man, who whispered in his ear, ‘Directly.’
    ‘Well! and that’s a fact!’ said the waiter, looking helplessly at me: ‘Right away.’
    I saw now that ‘Right away’ and ‘Directly’ were one and the same thing. So I reversed my previous answer, and sat down to dinner in ten minutes afterwards; and a capital dinner it was.

  16. I may have mentioned that I once met Jessica Mitford, in Berkeley. Just saying.

  17. Did she bend your ear about the funeral industry?

  18. No, it was a bit after that. I should say that she was reading from her latest work & answering questions from a smallish group, it wasn’t like I was so fascinating that she took me out to dinner and told me stories about the family. It was in an old chapel, I think by Bernard Maybeck but I may have invented that bit. Around that time (mid ’70s) I also met Christopher Isherwood (my hero) after he’d given a reading at a school in the Bay Area. He was very nice, very normal and a bit shy.

  19. Juha,
    What is the meaning of “directly” in that account? To me, its meaning has always been “in a straight line” and by extension “without diversions on the way,” none of which has anything to do with “right away,” that is “immediately,” nor “in the same room,” nor “in another room.”

  20. Directly as a synonym of immediately, straight away is listed in major dictionaries:
    Macmillan
    Merriam-Webster
    Some more Dickens examples:
    I got out of bed directly (said the German courier) and began to get on my clothes, begging him not to be alarmed, and telling him that I would go myself to the doctor.
    To Be Read At Dusk
    Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights. The disorder might have taken a long time to conquer, if it had been faintly experimented on in bed; but, it was soon defeated by the brisk treatment of getting up directly after lying down, and going out, and coming home tired at sunrise.
    Night Walks
    Nobody thought much about them, until the same little snivelling chap came in, against all
    rules, from the post where he was Scout, and said, “It’s Jane!” Both Elevens forgot the game directly, and ran crowding round the carriage. It WAS Jane! In such a bonnet! And if you’ll
    believe me, Jane was married to Old Cheeseman.
    The Schoolboy’s Story
    [...] it was early in the second year of my married life that I lost my poor Lirriper and I set up at Islington directly afterwards and afterwards came here, being two houses and eight-and-thirty years and some losses and a deal of experience.
    Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings
    My heart failed me when I saw him squaring at me with every demonstration of mechanical
    nicety, and eyeing my anatomy as if he were minutely choosing his bone. I never have been so surprised in my life, as I was when I let out the first blow, and saw him lying on his back, looking up at me with a bloody nose and his face exceedingly fore-shortened.
    But, he was on his feet directly, and after sponging himself with a great show of dexterity
    began squaring again. The second greatest surprise I have ever had in my life was seeing
    him on his back again, looking up at me out of a black eye.
    Great Expectations, Ch. 11
    A young woman stumbled over a bit last night, and fell against my garden-railings; directly she got up I saw her look towards his infernal red lamp with the pantomime-light.
    Oliver Twist, Ch. XIV

  21. marie-lucie says:

    “Directly” does not mean exactly “immediately”, or at least does not have exactly the same function: when used in a sentence it often seems to mean “as soon as”, as in the last example:
    directly she got up I saw her look …
    = as soon as she got up …
    but not
    *immediately she got up I saw her …

  22. Yes, m-l, I was going to mention that variant of the “right now” use of “directly”.
    Another, which I saw in a book somewhere (in the mouth of a fictional character) is “this directly minute”.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    “this directly minute”
    That sounds weird!

  24. marie-lucie writes: “…but not
    *immediately she got up I saw her …”
    That sounds okay to me, though old-fashioned. I found (googled) this: “Miss Dace was passing a handful of small coins to the cabin boy for some reason, and spoke immediately he had left.” from Whalebone Strict, by Lady Alice McCloud.
    http://books.google.com/books?id=g7JAD5Hul7kC&pg=PA47&lpg=PA47&dq=%22Immediately+he+had+left%22&source=bl&ots=1_9HARfdG8&sig=3j_rSOme97zz7D5u0lgwacxSSyI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=mO-mUInjKoXliALn9YCgDA&sqi=2&ved=0CGEQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=%22Immediately%20he%20had%20left%22&f=false

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Greg, it must be a dialectal difference as well as a generational one. I would not use either “directly” or “immediately” in that way, because no one I know does, and seeing them in writing seems odd to me.

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