The bizarre syntax of 'sexiest man alive'
Who talks like this?
Arika Okrent has a great article about what’s going on with the syntax of “sexiest man alive”.
The Sexiest Man Blond? The Sexiest Man Canadian? …
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!
Another interesting property of a- adjectives that reminds us of their origins as prepositional phrases is that they can only be used in predicative, not attributive position. So you can say “the man is alive/afloat/asleep/awake/aflame” but not “*the alive/afloat/asleep/aflame man” (of course, you can express the same meaning with a gerundive adjective, as in “the living/floating/sleeping/flaming man”).