Such Good Friends


Are these friends of Dorothy or friends of Dorothy’s?

On Saturday, Flavia Pennetta of Italy defeated her countrywoman, longtime doubles partner, and onetime roommate Roberta Vinci to win the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Her acceptance speech was heartfelt and gracious, but what caught my ear was one sentence, which you can hear at about the 7:58 mark in this YouTube clip:

I could be wrong, but what I think she is saying is, “It’s so nice to play with a friend of my.”

When I heard it, my thoughts immediately jumped to my late father-in-law, Luigi Simeone, a native of Italy who was throughout his life confounded by English’s double genitive. That is, he couldn’t understand why people didn’t say, “I’m a friend of Bob” rather than “I’m a friend of Bob’s.” In Italian, after all, one says that one is “un amico di Bob.” I inferred that Pennetta had some of the same difficulty, leading to her odd phrasing.

I have a Brooklyn-born friend who shares some of my father-in-law’s bemusement. This fellow belies the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’s remark that the double genitive is “an idiomatic construction of long standing in English — going back before Chaucer’s time — and should be of little interest except to learners of the language because, as far as we know, it gives native speakers no trouble whatsoever.” No matter how often I point out to him that no one would say, “He’s a friend of me,” he insists that the double genitive is rum.

I actually think it’s a genius formulation. Consider the difference between “a picture of Bob” and “a picture of Bob’s.” While we’d refer to both of them as “Bob’s picture,” the former means that Bob is the subject of the photo, the latter that it belongs to Bob. The preposition of and the apostrophe-s possessive don’t always indicate actual possession. The double genitive clues us in when they do.

It can manage impressive subtlety as well. Would you say “I’m a fan of George Clooney” or “a fan of George Clooney’s”? Both pass muster but to my ears, the former is slightly preferable because Clooney is not a aware of my existence — hence, no possession.

Still somewhat puzzling, at least initially, is a trio of genitive-less phrases: “a friend of Bill” (referring to Bill Clinton), “a friend of Bill W.” (code for a member of Alcoholics Anonymous), and “a friend of Dorothy” (code for a gay man). The explanation that comes to mind is that in these examples, the “of” is more like a “to.” So the FOBs are were loyal to Clinton, rather than being buddy-buddy. And there is no question that Dorothy and Bill Wilson aren’t aware of these “friends,” even leaving aside the fact that Dorothy is a fictional character and Wilson died in 1971. All conveyed in the absence of apostrophe-s.

Genius indeed.

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