In the wake of People magazine's announcement last week of its choice for this year's "Sexiest Man Alive," our thoughts, naturally, turned to the unusual syntax of this phrase.
Why "alive"? Isn't that a given? Not quite. After all, this is not a competition between all the sexy men of history. That would be ridiculous, not to mention very hard to judge. "Alive" narrows the field, takes Gary Cooper and Alexander the Great out of the running. Let the dead men have their own competition.
However, "Sexiest Man Dead"? That doesn't work, and the fact that it doesn't reveals something interesting about the syntax of the phrase.
"Sexiest man" can be modified in various ways. It can take a prepositional phrase (Sexiest Man in the World, Sexiest Man with a Frog Tattoo, Sexiest Man in the Dentist's Waiting Room). It can take a verb in the –ing form (the Sexiest Man Graduating, the Sexiest Man Flossing) or passive past participle form (the Sexiest Man Elected, the Sexiest Man Eaten by an Anaconda). It can also take a full relative clause (the Sexiest Man who Rides the 8:55 Train). Alive is none of those things. It's an adjective, and this construction does not work with other adjectives, dead included. The Sexiest Man Blond? The Sexiest Man Canadian? (We're talking simple adjectives, not those derived from verb participles, like elected above.)
So why is "alive" the only adjective that fits in this construction? Actually, there is a small set of other adjectives that also work here, and the thing they have in common is etymological history. Alive originated in the Old English phrase on life. It was a prepositional phrase, one that got reanalyzed along the way into a single word, an adjective.
The other phrases that underwent this change are on flote, an slæpe, and on waecnan. In their current forms, they work beautifully in the "Sexiest Man" construction. Really, some magazine should judge a winner for these categories too:
"Sexiest Man Afloat!"
"Sexiest Man Asleep!"
"Sexiest Man Awake!"
Adrift, formed on analogy with afloat also works, as do a few other words where the initial a-can be traced back to the meaning "on": afire, aflame, ablaze.
Do you like hot guys? Well, you're gonna love the Sexiest Man Ablaze!
There are some words that can be traced back to an on/a- phrase, however, that don't sound right in the "Sexiest Man" frame because the part joined to the a- is too unrecognizable. Sexiest Man Aghast? (From gast, "to frighten.") Aloof? (From luff "windward part of a ship.") And the words that we borrowed from French with the a- prefix already attached don't sound quite right either. Sexiest Man Alert? Afraid? Agog? Not all a- prefixed adjectives will be suitable partners for a "Sexiest Man." History and transparency matter.
So congratulations, Chris Hemsworth, on receiving this honor and once again bringing this linguistically fascinating phrase together for our inspection. In the firmament of Hollywood stars, may you remain the sexiest man ablaze, and on the sea of celebrity career striving may you remain the sexiest man afloat. At least until next year.