So what comes first: chicken or egg?

Jun 17, 2010 by

In an earlier posting, I mentioned that grandmothers and grandfathers sounds better in that order. And so does ladies and gentlemen, Mom and Dad and many other so-called binomials (i.e., collocations of the form “X and/or Y” where not only the individual members but their order is frozen as well). But is it that ladies always come first? What about brothers and sisters? And what about binomials with non-human elements, such as the chicken or the egg, salt and pepper, back and forth, north and south and so on?

There turn out to be several different factors that determine the order in binomials, both involving human and non-human elements. And gender is just one of them. Other aspects of meaning (semantic factors) come into play as well as phonological (sound-related) factors and even frequency of use in the language.

Probably the most interesting among the semantic ordering principles is the “me first” principle: the element that is physically or metaphorically closer to the speaker is placed in the first position in binomials: me and you, here and there, this and that, family and friends. Not only the direction away from the speaker matters, but so does the direction along the vertical axis: top comes before bottom, as in up and down, head and tail, head to toe (compare with the Russian collocation s golovy do nog ‘from head to feet’), and even in from top to bottom. The vertical orientation may also be responsible for the ordering in north and south because our maps traditionally depict north at the top.

Another semantic factor is number: the element denoting a singular entity comes before the one denoting a plural entity; among examples of this is individually and collectively. Moreover, connotation (“good or bad?”) determines the ordering in good and bad, good, bad and ugly, and even day and night (night is considered scary, dark, etc.). If the two elements differ in the generality of meaning, the more general element precedes the less general: pull and tug (tugging is a type of pulling) and changing and improving (improving is one kind of changing). Also, what is easier to perceive comes before what is harder to perceive: physical and mental (physical properties are more obvious than mental), older and wiser (it’s easier to perceive who’s older while determining who’s wiser is more complicated), see and hear. The ease of perception is another possible explanation for the north and south ordering: after all, many methods of orientation in space involve determining the direction of the north.

But there are other semantic factors as well. One of them is commonality: the more common element comes before the less common one, hence salt and pepper, oranges and grapefruit or nights and weekends. Also more precious element comes before the less precious, as in gold and silver. Finally, linguists talk about the “condiment rule”: the element perceived as central precedes the element perceived as a side dish, sidekick, or condiment. Think of such names of dishes as fish and chips, bangers and mash or the more general meat and potatoes. Same principle applies to eating and drinking (drinking accompanies eating), as well as such non-food-related binomials as principle and interest and human pairs Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Groucho and Harpo and Clinton and Gore.

The following set of binomials illustrate the iconicity of and: the element that comes first in a temporal or causal way comes first in such binomials as wait and see, kiss and tell, spit and polish, slowed and stopped, point and click, manufacture and install, there and back, out and about, elementary and high school.

The order in binomials may also encode social priorities, as in prince and pauper, rich and poor, mother and child, priest and parishioners, captain and crew with the socially more important element coming first and the “social sidekick” coming second. Furthermore, animacy may be related to either social priorities or closeness to the speaker (the animate element being more like the speaker than the inanimate one): man and beast and horse and buggy.

Which brings us back to gender. Here two different principles conflict: men have a higher social status, but politeness requires placing ladies first. Thus, different binomials come out differently: males precede females in men and women, but females precede males in ladies and gentlemen. Yet overall there are more binomials with male before female ordering: boys and girls, brothers and sisters, son and daughter, guys and dolls (or is this one animacy-driven?), I pronounce you husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs..

But meaning is not the only thing that determines the ordering. Sounds play no lesser role in determining the ordering in binomials. And there are several principles involving sounds at play here. First, the first element tends to have a higher and/or fronter vowel (i.e., more /i/-like vowel) than the second element, hence dribs and drabs, spic and span, kit and caboodle. Second, the first element tends to have a shorter (stressed) vowel than the second element: fully and fairly, correct and acute, semiconductors and supercomputers. When it comes to consonants, the initial segment of the first element tends to be more sonorant than the initial segment of the second element: think of roly-poly and jeepers creepers. The second element is also more likely to have more initial consonants than the first element: fair and square, sea and sky, cauliflower and broccoli. Furthermore, the second element is more likely to have fewer final consonants: wax and wane and betwixt and between. And more generally, the first element is typically shorter than the second element.

Note that all these rules and principles — like so many others in language — are subconscious. Linguists have to conduct complicated studies to draw them out. But somehow when it comes to thinking and saying binomials, we all know what comes first.


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  • Venelina

    That makes me think of the phrase "you and I", which is more common than "I and you",I wonder why?. Obviously, the sound principles come into play in the expression "me and you",rather than "I and you"..
    Also the being more common principle, as in "oranges and grapefruit", wouldn't that mean that how the phrase appears depends on the reagion and what is common there? I wonder if if people from different regions say it differently..

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thanks for your insightful comment, Venelina! "You and I" is matter of politeness. Good point about regional differences, although I don't know of any… Something to think about!