Always +1


J.C. always +1

On Sub Specie I don’t write about lin­guistic mat­ters all that much. I’m not entirely sure why, but per­haps it’s because I spend most of my research time on the main sub­ject of my PhD thesis: ana­logy and verbs, and I just didn’t feel like tack­ling that and other lin­guistic issues in my free time as well. Maybe that should change. At one point, I’ll prob­ably sum­marise some of my find­ings on my main sub­ject here in the future. In the mean time, I intend to rec­tify this glaring over­sight in my blog­ging. There’s a lot to be said about lan­guage that’s suited to blogs as a medium; stuff that doesn’t war­rant a whole journal art­icle with a peer review pro­cess of two years, but that’s a bit bigger than what you can fit into a couple of tweets.

To kick off, I’d like to start with what is a rel­at­ively obscure phe­nomenon in the Dutch lin­guistic land­scape: the use of +1 (or as a pro­nounced phrase plus één) as an adjective in pre­dic­ative pos­i­tion. Basic­ally, it’s used to sig­nify approval or that some­thing is better than some­thing else, as might be expected.

Some evid­ence:

* [source]

Heel goed, eigen broek oph­ouden is altijd plus één *

Very good, to sup­port your­self [fin­an­cially] is always plus one

* [source]

Argu­menteren met gelovigen, altijd +1 *

Arguing with reli­gious people, always +1

* [source]

aangezien straal­jagers altijd +1 zijn schotelen wij ‘m lekker aan je voor *

Since jet fighters are always +1, we’ll dish it out to you

* [source]

Deze tent is echt plus één! *

This joint is totally plus one!

There’s prob­ably a lot to say about the soci­o­lin­guistic spe­cificity of this phrase. Based on a gut feeling, I would say it’s mostly used by men, the type that’s a bit boastful, trying to be mas­cu­line and cool. Appar­ently that includes frat boys and atheist wind­bags, but I digress.

Though not exclus­ively, +1 or plus één is mostly used as a phrase com­bined with altijd ‘always’, which you can use to sig­nify that some­thing is pretty much cat­egor­ic­ally +1. Other options include the above­men­tioned echt plus één ‘really +1’. Although the­or­et­ic­ally I sup­pose you could use +1 without an addi­tional intens­i­fier, in prac­tice I think it is less often used bare. Hon­estly, though, doing a web search for attest­a­tions of a bare use of +1 — or plus één, for that matter — is not really prac­tical. An inter­esting elab­or­a­tion on the phrase is its neg­ative coun­ter­part min één (found in the source for echt plus één above), which can of course be used to sig­nify that some­thing is, well, decidedly less awe­some.

As the examples show, the phrase occu­pies the pos­i­tion usu­ally filled by a pre­dic­ative adjective. Jet fighters are always cool, always awe­some, always +1. As such, it’s best ana­lysed as an instance of gram­mat­ic­al­isa­tion, though one of a spe­cial kind. The ori­ginal +1 is not that straight­for­ward to cat­egorise as a lin­guistic sign. It’s a math­em­at­ical oper­ator with its own verbal form that can be ana­lysed as con­junc­tion + numeral.** See what I did there? In terms of word classes then, it’s a two-word phrase turned into an adjective. Since I’ve seen no evid­ence of the phrase being used attributively (i.e. before the noun), I’d say it’s of roughly the same status as phrase like the bomb, as in that shit is da bomb! (also in Dutch: die shit is de bom!) That phrases can also gram­mat­ic­alise into adject­ives that can be used attributively is shown by some­thing like off the hook, which can be used in both ways. Just google “an off the hook X” if you don’t believe me. A Dutch equi­valent would be niet te filmen, which means roughly ‘unbe­liev­able’, but which sounds a bit fogey-ish to me.

Last ques­tion, then, where does +1 come from? When I started thinking about the phrase today my mind as imme­di­ately pulled into the ever-expanding realm of Google. Of course, Google’s social net­working plat­form is called Plus (or +), and the +1 button is Google+’ equi­valent of the like button on Face­book. How­ever, I had a nag­ging sus­pi­cion that the usage of +1 in Dutch pred­ated Google’s use of the button. This seems to be more or less cor­rect. The oldest attest­a­tion of altijd +1 that I could find was from late 2009, whereas Google+ didn’t launch until mid 2011.** According to this art­icle, the Google +1 button itself was launched a little earlier, in March 2011. Of course, lots of forum and com­ment sys­tems on the web have been using + and - but­tons for years to allow users to rate posts. I knew this, it’s just that Google almost suc­cess­fully col­on­ised my memory there. Very clever. In any case, it seems that Dutch people started using +1 and its related forms as a way to emphasise that they liked a cer­tain post or com­ment, and from there the usage was extended to being usable to sig­nify the plus one­ness of any concept.

+1, like many instances of gram­mat­ic­al­isa­tion, illus­trates that people can be cre­ative and flex­ible with phrases and word classes. It’s doubtful whether some­thing like this will ever make it into main­stream lan­guage, but that is the fate of many innov­a­tions ori­gin­ating in youth and sub­cul­tural lan­guage. If you know where to look, there’s a ver­it­able gold­mine of lin­guistic innov­a­tion and lan­guage change. Which is always +1.

  • Sietse

    I’m, sadly, no expert on the matter, but I have a feeling this ori­gin­ated on the Geen­Stijl side of the Dutch internet. They have a clearly defined “+1” button, and this phrase is on almost every single sub­mis­sion there starting some­where around the begin­ning of 2009.

    • Oscar Strik

      Hi Sietse, thanks for vis­iting!

      You’re right, I think. A lot of the attestions I could find were from Dumpert, which is a daughter web­site of Geen­Stijl, if I’m not mis­taken. Which explains the soci­o­lin­guistic side of things as well.

      Like I said, there are lots of places on the net that have been using + and - but­tons for a while, per­haps most fam­ously Reddit, now that I think about it. It’s just curious that the phrase caught on in Dutch while the­or­et­ic­ally it should also be pos­sible in Eng­lish - and other lan­guages too, but I haven’t checked.