Geoff Nunberg has a post at Language Log on the word gingerly: a NY Times story on Falluja included the statement “it was a gingerly first step,” which pleased him by its proper use of gingerly as an adjective [thanks to Tim May for catching my original misstatement!]; then he had second thoughts about his idea of proper use:

Maybe I should throw in the towel on this one, I thought, but then began to wonder whether there was ever actually a towel for me to be holding in the first place.
In defense of the usage, gingerly began its life as an adverb. It was formed from the adjective ginger, “dainty or delicate,” and the OED gives citations of its use as an adverb right up to the end of the 19th century — the adjectival use appeared in the 16th century. And unlike most other adjectives in –ly, like friendly or portly, gingerly has an adverbial meaning, so that it can only apply to nominals denoting actions (like “step” in Ekholm and Schmidt’s article); otherwise it requires a clumsy periphrasis like “in a gingerly way.” Moreover, Merriam-Webster’s exhaustive Dictionary of English Usage gives no indication that anybody has ever objected to the use of the word as an adverb.

But the adjective ginger has been obsolete for a long time, and it’s notable that nobody is tempted to back-form it anew, as in “his ginger handling of the question,” which is what you’d expect if the adverbial gingerly were really analyzed as composed of the root ginger plus the derivational suffix –ly.
What we seem to have here, rather, is a haplology (or “haplogy,” as some linguists can’t resist calling it), the process which gave us Latin nutrix in place of the predicted *nutritrix and which leads people to say missippi instead of mississippi. Gingerly is just the way the mental lexicon’s gingerlyly comes out on the tongue or the page. That’s natural enough, but there’s something to be said for insisting that the word be used as an adjective, as one of the small obeisances we make to the capriciousness of grammar.

(Followup here: it seems people do in fact use the back-formation ginger as an adjective, though not very often.) While I love the capriciousness of grammar, I think this battle has been lost, tradition giving way to convenience.


  1. or they’re forming a legit adj from the noun ginger. Friend : friendly :: ginger : X, where X = gingerly. With a pretty weird use of “ginger”, I grant.

  2. Hm. I would see “gingerlyly” as a dittography (or “dittottography”, as some linguists ought not to be able to resist calling it, if they are to be consistent). In any case, it ought to be spelt “gingerlily”, on the model of SOED-attested “kindlily”. But then, of course, it would be confused with “ginger lily”, for which SOED has: “any of various chiefly Indo-Malayan plants of the genus Hedychium, of the ginger family, grown for their spikes of showy fragrant flowers”.
    There are several English adjectives formed from other adjectives by the addition of “-ly”. The following are given as adjectives in SOED:
    cleanly (with “cleaniness” as a derivative)
    evenly (obs.)
    easterly (etc.)
    fitly (rare)
    googly (!)
    sprightly (from adj. “spright”; “spritely” is from the noun “sprite”)
    tiddly (as one of the three headwords)
    That should to be enough.

  3. Oops! I meant “That should be enough”.

  4. Geoff Nunberg has a post at Language Log on the word gingerly: a NY Times story on Falluja included the statement “it was a gingerly first step,” which provoked his automatic resistance.

    Mmm, no, it didn’t. You’ve got Nunberg’s argument backward (or I have, but I’ve been over it several times, because it seems so strange to me). What he says is

    The sentence caught my attention merely because it used gingerly in what I always assumed to be the correct way, as an adjective.

    He’s saying that gingerly is, basically and traditionally, an adjective, and the adverbial use results as a haplology of the derived form gingerlyly.

  5. I read Nunberg’s article the same was Tim does. Racking my brain for some way to throw in a pun about “gingerly snaps” or “beer” but nothing seems to be forthcoming. “He gingerly snapped to attention”? Weak, very weak.

  6. Quite right — I was trying to rewrite quickly, and that rarely goes well. I’ll fix it. Thanks!

  7. Another common adjective in -ly is friendly; every few months I find myself stammering through some circumlocution in order to avoid the adverb friendlily. Friendly used to be an adverb, as can be seen from the ME letter of Henry (IV?): Henri … cyng on Engleneloand … send igretinge to alle his hold … on Huntendonscire freondlice. (I quoted that from memory and could easily have blown it, but the point is that friendly is here an adjective modifying send.

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