Grand theft bovine animal?
We were just watching the movie Boys Don't Cry, since we missed it the first time around. In the movie Hilary Swank's character Brandon is charged with "grand theft auto", and I suddenly wondered about the syntactic status of that phrase. Why is 'auto' last? Is it just another kind of symptom of the French-derived modifier order in legalese, as exhibited in terms like 'attorney general' and 'surgeon general'? But that would be a bit weird, since I'm (reasonably) confident that 'grand theft auto' is (a) a relatively recent coinage and (b) is probably US legalese, owing nothing to idiomatic holdovers from the British system. Is the head-modifier order itself a holdover within US legalese, I mused? (<-- And where in that sentence does the question mark go? Anyplace I put it looks wrong.) Googling didn't help, because the game "Grand Theft Auto" seemed to trump most combinations of searches including that string. Eventually I stumbled on the Wikipedia entry for it, which helped a bit -- the 'grand' part designates 'felony' status in the several state penal codes which list this specific crime. But, I thought, it doesn't explain why it's 'theft auto' rather than 'auto theft'.
Poking around a bit more, I found the California legal code online, the relevant section of which makes the constituent structure clearer:
487. Grand theft is theft committed in any of the following cases:So it really is [[grand theft] auto], not [grand [theft auto]]. I can sympathize with the coiner's being forced to exocentricity; 'auto grand theft', which is what English would really have you do, sounds pretty odd, doubtless because of the 'grand' in the middle there; noun compounds don't like adjectives in them, even though in this case I assume the adjective itself is part of an adj-noun compound. (...though this doesn't stop anyone from producing 'the Bush White House', etc.; maybe the adj-noun compound has to be really well established before it can be the head of a nominal compound?)
(d) When the property taken is any of the following:
(1) An automobile, horse, mare, gelding, any bovine animal, any
caprine animal, mule, jack, jenny, sheep, lamb, hog, sow, boar, gilt,
barrow, or pig.
(2) A firearm.
Hmm! Maybe it IS really connected to French-derived legalese after all. Although in French you normally have to have postnominal adjectives, a very few adjectives are allowed to occur prenominally, and grand(e) is one of them. So one can say things like un grand homme brun, 'a big man brown' (dark-haired). Could it be that 'grand theft auto' sounds ok because of its connection to grand in combination with other postnominal modifiers in French?
But it's still a bit odd, in that (in the movies, on TV, etc.) one hears about 'grand theft auto' all the time, but I'm 100% sure I've never heard of 'grand theft horse', 'grand theft goat', 'grand theft jenny', 'grand theft boar', etc. More relevantly in this modern world, one never hears about 'grand theft firearm'. Does anyone know if, within the law-enforcement or legal world, this is indeed the technical way to refer to any subcategory of grand theft? Or is it reserved especially for autos?
Update: Literal Minded discusses a similar but way more bizarre example to do with poultry here.