An innocent turn of phrase….or is it?
If you are David Cameron, you will have by now learnt that size nouns used in SIZE NOUN + OF + NOUN constructions can get one in a whole bunch of hot water (well…maybe not the exact terminology but the idea behind it at least)! In 2016, he had the misfortune of Twitting the phrase a bunch of migrants in relation to the migrant situation at the refugee camp in Calais. If you want to know what’s wrong with a bunch of migrants see the explanation in this blog post by Robbie Love – a corpus linguist from CASS (Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences at Lancaster University,UK).
What is special about BUNCH + OF+ NOUN?
Actually, nothing at all. It turns out that nouns which are used to express quantities: lots, heaps, piles, masses, sets, bits, swathes, smatterings, scraps, termed size nouns by Liesellote Brems in her book on the subject (yes, size nouns are that compelling, a whole book is required) expand their functions to include new meanings over time.
Bunch (of) is no exception, and as reported in a new article just this month, linguists found statistical correlations between bunch of and the nouns it frequently occurs with (collocates). So in theory, we could have bunches of just about anything: bunch of books, bunch of flowers, bunch of beds, bunch of A+ assignments, bunch of surprises, bunch of fragrant cupcakes, bunch of amazing linguists, bunch of open source data, bunch of inspiring politicians, bunch of rockstar mathematicians, and so on. The grammar of English certainly allows it! But we simply don’t!
What we do have is a bunch of X where X has shifted over the years in its meaning to gravitate towards a particular type of X. The 1910s to the 1960s have been busy times for the size noun BUNCH. In that time, it went from being an arrangement or bundle (bunch of flowers, bunch of grapes), to denoting a vague group rather than a specific constellation (bunch of cattle, bunch of kids), to further reconceptualisation as a large quantity (a bunch of idiots, a bunch of noise, bunch of questions). By the 2000s rolled around, we find that all three uses of BUNCH are thriving, but not equally well.
“BUNCH + OF+ PEOPLE” has negative overtones
Bin Shao and colleagues have sifted large historical collections of American English to uncover that while BUNCH appears with a great variety of nouns, the shift is nowadays towards using it with nouns denoting people more than any other type of nouns, bunch of immigrants, bunch of idiots, bunch of nutters. And what is more, the expressions it is found in tend to have negative overtones (especially since the 1980s and especially in fiction). And because BUNCH (of) attracts “negative” people-nouns, by analogy, other nouns that BUNCH (of) is used with, also get tainted by this negative brush. Oops!
Well this is HEAPS GOOD!
As mentioned , changes in meaning and function of the sort identified for BUNCH are not atypical of size nouns, and they are not exclusive to American English either. Last year, I wrote about incoming changes in how New Zealanders use the size noun HEAPS. While HEAPS + OF+ NOUN is a common phrase across British, American and Australian English, here in New Zealand, we witness a rather extravagant reshuffling of grammatical function for HEAPS.
For us Kiwis, HEAPS can nowadays occur without X altogether, or the preposition OF for that matter: “I paid heaps for that car”. Well maybe HEAPS stands for “heaps of money” you say, “of money” is left out as it is understood from context. And in something like “I learnt heaps in that class today”, HEAPS stands for “heaps of stuff” or “heaps of new things”, slightly more vague, but plausible. But, what about this one: “She loves him heaps”? (She loves him heaps of what?.)
From a mere noun denoting size, the unassuming HEAPS is born again, this time as an adverb (it connects with the verb: “what did he learn?” heaps, “what did he pay?” heaps, “how much does she love him?” heaps). And through this transformation (a process called grammaticalization), we also get useful Kiwi idioms such as “to give someone heaps” and “to get heaps”. In fact, the data I analysed even contained this gem: “That was heaps stressful”. Here, HEAPS is used to say something about the intensity of the (adjective) stressful. So from a simple shape or constellation (a noun), to a quantifier (expressing hyperbolic size) to an intensifier (an adverb) – what a journey!
Analyses of everyday phenomena like the changes in use of size nouns speak to a larger question, namely, they uncover the hidden alleys down which our minds tend to wander. Even though we could say anything we want in principle because language provides us with the lego-like building blocks to do so, we simply don’t. We do not like to take the road untaken. Our linguistic minds prefer the road which is very much downtrodden, often for no reason other than the fact that others have gone that same way before. This is how BUNCH + OF+ NOUN has come to have negative associations, and I suspect, many other lexical associations which similarly fly under the radar of our consciousness.
Brems, Lieselotte (2011). Layering of size and type noun constructions in English(Vol. 74). Walter de Gruyter.
Calude, Andreea (2017). CALUDE, A. (2017). The use of heaps as quantifier and intensifier in New Zealand English.English Language & Linguistics, 1-26.
Shao, Bin; Cai Yingying, & Trousdale, Graeme. (2019). A Multivariate Analysis of Diachronic Variation in A Bunch of noun: A Construction Grammar Account. Journal of English Linguistics. DOI 10.1177/0075424219838611.