World Order.

Almost forty years ago, William E. Cooper and John Robert Ross wrote a paper called “World Order” that starts “We began the present study by asking, as some linguists have asked before us, why the ordering of certain conjoined elements is fixed.”  Why do we say “bigger and better,” “fore and aft,” “kit and caboodle,” in that fixed order? (The paper calls such expressions “freezes.”) It is available online as a pdf, and I commend it to your attention if the topic intrigues you. I got the link from this excellent MetaFilter post, which includes various other interesting items like this Idibon post about how “both X and Y” constructions have changed over the last century:

During the 1800s we really only said ‘both father and mother’. Throughout the 1900s the mothers staged a comeback, and now we’re at the point of equality where ‘both father and mother’ and ‘both mother and father’ appear equally. This trend is also seen with ‘both maternal and paternal’, showing that the pattern is broader than simply the words themselves, and really is an indicator of social change. We used to almost exclusively say ‘both going and coming’, which sounds odd to me, but now we can see that ‘both coming and going’ is more popular. Another construction that sounds odd, ‘both able and willing’ was once more popular than ‘both willing and able’. I was surprised to see that people actually use the ‘able and willing’ variation about 40% of the time—is this just my perception or do you use this?

They give the top 30 such constructions, ordered by how much they have changed over time. Amazing what you can do with the Google Books Ngram dataset.


  1. John Emerson says:

    I was once rebuked for saying “Watson and Crick”. But the Google difference is only 2x. My friend was a pretty fussy guy.

  2. Is it truly surprising when other people speak differently? Yes and no.

  3. Ven. Analayo touches on this in Oral Dimensions of Pali Discourses, arguing that it applies not just to dvanda compounds but also to lists of synonyms (of which, monks, the discourses contain a host, a slew, a profusion, a multiplicity).

  4. “That Gandalf should be late, does not bode well. But it is said: ‘Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.’ The choice is yours: to go or wait.” “And it is also said,” answered Frodo: ” ‘Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’


  5. John Emerson, I thought “Watson and Crick” was the normal order, and I used to be a PhD candidate in biophysical chemistry. Is it a transatlantic difference (I’m American)?

  6. FWIW, Keith, I thought the same as you and I’m Australian.

  7. In the Foreword to “The Double Helix” the pair are referred to as “Crick and Watson”. Mind you, since Watson was the hustler and Crick the thinker, it’s natural that USians put Watson first and British Bulldogs put Crick first.

  8. And it’s also natural that the Americanisation of Australia continues.

  9. JohnEmerson says:

    1. My friend was generalizing from his own experience, which might have been quite small.

    2. One of his defining traits was a firm belief that if there are two ways of doing something, one of them must be WRONG!!!

  10. Cooper and Ross’s paper is fun and extremely interesting. As I watched them systematically establish the principles behind the ordering of ‘frozen’ elements, I got to wondering how the ideas might apply to adjective order. And then they went and addressed it. Marvellous.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    I was once rebuked for saying “Watson and Crick”.

    Depends. Watson was the first author of this short paper and this longer one; Crick was first a year later.

    Physics papers often have the authors in alphabetical order. In biology, at the other extreme, the first author is the one who did the biggest share of the work, and the last author is the one who provided the lab and/or funding and may have come up with the basic idea(s) – both positions are sometimes fought for, because hiring committees use them as a proxy for how good a candidate is.

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