Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Monster In-Laws": A Monstrous Usage?

Recently on Twitter, Amanda Pleva vented, "I guess I'm too much of a language nerd, but the title of the show 'Monster In Laws' makes me cringe every time I see it." Amanda was referring to the reality show on the A&E Network, "Monster In-Laws," which encourages viewers to "follow married couples dealing with meddling in-laws as they try to make peace with the help of an unconventional, no-nonsense relationship expert." So is the title of the show a linguistic faux-pas?

The in-law combining form attaches to familial terms to indicate a relationship by marriage rather than blood. So your mother-in-law is the mother of your spouse, your brother-in-law is the brother of your spouse or the husband of your sibling, and so forth. (Once upon a time, in-law terms could also refer to family relationships where a parent has children from another marriage, but those relationships are now taken care of by the prefix step-.) Though originally used only as a suffix, in-law eventually broke off to be a free-standing noun, so your in-laws are everyone you're related to by marriage.

The figure of the mother-in-law is in many Western cultures the subject of deep anxiety, sometimes played for laughs in the form of "mother-in-law jokes." (I'll note without comment that an un-P.C. anagram of mother-in-law is woman Hitler.) The stereotype of the meddlesome, domineering mother-in-law often works its way into pop culture, especially movies and TV. In 2005, a romantic comedy was released starring Jane Fonda as a mother-in-law-to-be who tries to stop the marriage of her son to a woman played by Jennifer Lopez. The title? Monster-in-Law, combining monster and mother-in-law.

The A&E show is no doubt inspired by the movie title, though it likely owes an indirect debt to another monstrous marital mashup from the world of reality television: bridezilla, blending bride and (God)zilla. Though bridezilla has been in use since at least 1995 according to Paul McFedries' Wordspy, it was the TV show "Bridezillas" (premiering in 2001) that brought the term to prominence and helped kickstart an efflorescence of -zilla suffixation, as in promzilla and momzilla. The -zilla ending now connotes, in the words of linguist Arnold Zwicky, "size, significance, awesomeness, or fearsomeness."

Back to "Monster In-Laws." What bugged Amanda Pleva was the pluralization: if the plural of mother-in-law is properly mothers-in-law, then monster-in-law should be pluralized as monsters-in-law. Note, though, that the show's title isn't hyphenated as "Monster-in-Laws." The first hyphen is omitted, so you could actually read it as the adjective monster (like monster truck) plus the free-standing plural noun in-laws. If this is how the show's creators intended us to understand the title, however, we'd expect the stress to be "MONster IN-laws," with emphasis falling on the first syllable of in-laws (in addition to the first syllable of monster).

But if you listen to how the A&E announcer says it in promos for the show (as in here and here), you'll notice that the stress pattern is "MONster in-laws," with no stress on the in of in-laws. So in fact they want us to interpret monster as the "head noun" of the compound, just like mother is the head noun in mother-in-law. And the standard way of forming such plurals is to add -s to the head noun: mothers-in-law, passers-by, commanders-in-chief, attorneys general, aides-de-camp, and so forth.

Despite this traditional approach, such compound nouns are often prey to a kind of reanalysis when the whole compound is treated as a fixed unit. Thus you will frequently encounter poet laureates instead of poets laureate, or notary publics instead of notaries public. The traditional plurals for these compounds might sound stilted to some ears. And even though mothers-in-law still far outpaces mother-in-laws in formal, edited prose, it's not to hard to find examples of the latter in more conversational settings, going all the way back to 1706 in the Google Books corpus.

It's interesting, though, that A&E chose to hyphenate the title as "Monster In-Laws" instead of "Monster-in-Laws." Perhaps they're trying to have it both ways: avoiding "Monsters-in-Law" because it might sound a bit stuffy, while at the same time throwing a bone to those who might be peeved at the nonstandard pluralization of "Monster-in-Laws."

I'm reminded of a discussion a couple of years ago when I was on the grammar panel for the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society. In answer to a question about pluralizing the cocktail "Captain on the Porch" (we decided on "Captain on the Porches"), Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh invoked the classic Onion headline, "William Safire Orders Two Whoppers Junior." A&E might be aware of the "Whoppers Junior" crowd, but they won't go so far as naming their show "Monsters-in-Law": such formality is probably out of place on a show centered around high-pitched screeching and meddling.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 22nd 2012, 5:53 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
Comes to mind that the gap between in-laws and out-laws is filling up with monsters
Friday June 22nd 2012, 6:29 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I do not differ often from the learned (literally if not legally) Ben. However, I feel that, unusually, he has been unkind. In these days, most of us read without having the benefit of words spoken.

"Monster In-Laws" seems to this interfering Englishman to have a clear and unequivocal meaning, as would "Monsters in Law", although, here as there, the latter would have begun a suit before the ink was dry.
Friday June 22nd 2012, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
It could also mean a show about bad lawyers. Thankfully, either way, it's one I miss...

Well, one I skip. LOL

Ot is that what it really is, another lawyer show? Color me puzzled.
Saturday June 23rd 2012, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Alberto
Your comments seems logically sound Mr. Zimmer!
Sunday June 24th 2012, 9:16 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The logic of "mothers-in-law" doesn't seem to carry through, even in formal writing, to the possessive: CMoS (7.23) recommends the 's be added to the end of the phrase. Thus it's "the two mothers-in-law" but "my mother-in-law's car". For the ultimate in logical condundra, they recommend "my sons-in-laws' addresses."

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