The Bigs and the Smalls

In a recent column about KNBC-TV’s new 24-hour news and feature station, California Nonstop, Los Angeles Times media critic James Rainey refers to “The bigs at NBCUniversal.”

The word “bigs” may sound strange, but the meaning is obvious. English, like all languages, is fluid. Adjectives can become nouns. Just drop the noun following an adjective if the referent is obvious. Drop “person” following adjectives like “intellectual,” “rich,” “poor,” “conservative,” “black,” “white” or “American” and the adjectives become nouns. “Big shots” become “bigs.”

There’s something a little quirky about nouns derived from adjectives in English, though. Some of them, like “bigs,” “intellectuals” and “conservatives” take a final “-s” to indicate a plural, but others, like “rich,” privileged,” “forlorn“ and “poor” don’t. They do take plural verbs, however (“The rich are…”). They’re not “mass” nouns like “milk” or “paper” that take singular verbs. They’re not “collective” nouns either. Collective nouns behave differently in Britain and America: plural in the UK, singular in the US.

                                                     American                   British

The United States                         is                                are

The royal family                            is                                are

Speaking of nationalities, “the American people” becomes “the Americans,” when “people” is dropped, but “the British people” becomes “the British,” not “the Britishes.” Russians, Poles, and Mexicans get the “-s,” but not the Chinese, Japanese or  Spanish. I can’t explain the discrepancy. It’s not that we can’t pronounce “Spanishes.” We say “banishes” just fine.

Getting back to “bigs”: it isn’t really so strange. After all the Brits (ha! Stuck an “-s” on them) use “smalls” as a euphemism for underwear.  The term is presumably the origin of the name Derek Smalls, Harry Shearer’s character in “This is Spinal Tap.”

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Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper is a blog about words and their origins at WordSnooper.com.
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