Friday, March 18, 2005

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:
[...]
(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.

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?)

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.

19 Comments:

Blogger Language Guy said...

I decided to Google "Grand Theft" and came up with "Grand Theft America," which links one to a nice audiovisual on the theft of the Presidency by Bush in Florida, the first time around. I also got "grand theft bus" which leads to a rock group's site. I listened a bit and it wasn't bad. Finally, I got "Grand Theft Parsons," which seems as if it might be a good movie. These were all from the first results page. It seems that the existing "productive" uses of "Grand Theft" give us artsy-fartsy stuff. The generalization here might be that we do this sort of thing for fun (i.e., word play of the sort you did) and word play often leads to art.

4:31 AM  
Blogger Qov said...

Think of it like a list progressively more specific headings in an old-fashioned library catalogue.

France - History - 19th Century
Grand Theft - Auto

I agree that it's odd that if this is the way the terminology works, we should have heard of Grand Theft Firearm. Grand Theft Bovine would make a great blog name.

6:36 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Hey qov -- that's a good idea, but it does also just highlight the main puzzle: in the usual grammar of English, nominal restrictors appear before their nouns (as in auto theft), but in this case that rule is violated; I'm wondering about why it's ok here but not elsewhere. I doubt that even the most pedantic police officer would haul someone in for theft auto.
It may be worth noting that when reading these kind of index entries, I think I tend to use a comma intonation between the head noun and the following noun, -- theft, auto, with main stress on each element, but that grand theft auto is, I think, stressed more like a regular compound, with destressing of the medial theft. If I was reading it with the comma intonation, theft would get a main stress: grant theft, auto.
Those examples from the web are v. nice, LG! Good idea! I bet they're all based on playing with grand theft auto, though, rather than just being new formations from grand theft tout court. Interesting that they're all so arty! Possibly they're not from grand theft auto, the legal term, either, but from "Grand Theft Auto", the infamous video game name. That would be like playing with a famous title to create another title, which people seem to do all the time; witness the movie "A Tale of Two Johns" about They Might Be Giants, and many similar riffs on "A Tale of Two Cities"; ditto with "The Importance of Being X" from TIBE by Wilde, etc. etc... If that were true, then the cases you bring up should all postdate the release and notoriety of "Grand Theft Auto". Hmm!

12:10 PM  
Blogger Q. Pheevr said...

It seems that "grand theft firearm" is a real (and common) offence in at least some jurisdictions; "grand theft horse" is mostly speculation about a prequel to Grand Theft Auto, and "grand theft bovine" is a deliberate misnomer for "grand theft cervid." Go figure.

I agree with qov's intuition that this feels like a subject entry in a library catalogue, or perhaps like a title and a subtitle. On the other hand, other criminal offences that spring to mind seem to follow the more usual structure for English nominals: "second degree murder" or "murder in the second degree" rather than "murder degree two"; "assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury" (awdwikisi for short!) rather than, um, "assault deadly weapon intent to kill serious injury" (or something). Hmm--could "grand theft auto" be a telegraphic form of "grand theft of an automobile"?

2:35 PM  
Blogger hh said...

grant theft cervid? those are great links; should thunk myself. hee hee.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Joe Clark said...

Some poetic forms of English use adjectives at the ends of noun phrases, e.g., the Pythonist "gone and joined the choir invisible" or a phrase like "the rhythm divine." I think there are a few computer terms that use the same structure, but I can't come up with them just now.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Karl Northman said...

What I remember from a friend years ago who was a reserve police officer in Mountain View, CA, is that in filling out arrest reports they need to specify the crime for which someone was being arrested. Usually this was done with just the CA statute number - which in this case would be (as I remember from above) something like 487.d.(1). But because (1) is a huge list of things, the charge has to be more specific - so one would write "487.d.(1) - Auto", which decodes to "grand theft - auto".

9:20 AM  
Blogger hh said...

hey karl! that makes a lot of sense -- and also explains why you don't hear 'grand theft firearm' as much -- one could just write in one's report 487.d(2) -- no need to add 'firearm' to the end because it's already specific enough! cool --thank you!

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