lain-back

On Tuesday a student about the difference between lay and lie. I gave a brief explanation to the effect that lay is transitive. It needs a direct object – hens lay eggs and humans lay tables. Lie is intransitive. It does not need, in fact it actively resists, a direct object – hens do not lie eggs and humans do not lie tables. (But some people use lay intransitively – Bob Dylan invites a lady to lay on his big brass bed and Gloria Gaynor’s ex-boyfriend thought she’d lay down and die, to varying degrees of horror from the purists.) I said to the student that it is very easy to get these two verbs mixed up, and many native English speakers do. (It does not help that the past simple form of lie is lay.)

By coincidence, Wednesday’s listening included the adjective laid-back, which I didn’t comment on at the time, because I knew Thursday’s lesson expanded on hyphenated adjectives. But it struck me that laid-back is built on the transitive lay-laid-laid and not the intransitive lie-lay-lain. If you are laid-back, then presumably it’s because someone or something has laid you back somewhere, and not because you have lain back somewhere. I’ve consulted several dictionaries and searched generally online, but I can’t find anything about this. Maybe the concept is reflexive: you have laid yourself back. Or maybe informal words don’t have to follow the rules of grammar.

In yesterday’s class, I briefly mentioned this to the student, then said ‘The word is laid-back, whether it comes from lay or lie’. Another student then asked about the other lie, to tell an untruth.

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