Archive for the ‘Context’ Category

Once more on background knowledge in the comics

October 10, 2014

Two of today’s cartoons — a Bizarro and a Zippy — bring us back to recurring questions on this blog: what do need to know to make sense out of what’s going on in a cartoon, and then what do you need to know to see why it might be funny? It’s all about background knowledge.



#1 brings back the clowns from an earlier posting on background knowledge. #2 is more intricate.


Hypothetical indirection

September 14, 2014

Today’s (re-run) Calvin and Hobbes:


Hobbes poses a hypothetical question to Calvin: suppose you knew …, then what would you do? Stated as a question, but functioning (indirectly) as a threatening instruction to do a specific thing (not named in the question, but inferrable from the context): do this, and today will not be the last day of your life — that is, DO THIS!

More cheese, and conversion by truncation

August 26, 2014

A comment (of 8/23) by Andy Sleeper on my haloumi posting:

At a hotel in Chicago recently, at the breakfast buffet, they were serving some dish with egg, meat, and cheese, with a little sign saying “Scrambled with chorizo sausage and chihuahua.” [Note that chorizo would have done fine here; chorizo is the name of a type of pork sausage, so that chorizo sausage is an expansion of chorizo -- similar to Brie cheese versus Brie.]

Adjectives with assumed nouns are asking for trouble, it seems to me. From scrambled, I understand eggs, though it could have been brains.

After I inquired, I learned that “chihuahua” refers to a type of cheese I had never heard of. I think “cheese” would have been an important word to include.

First, a note on Chihuahua cheese, then on the “conversion by truncation” in scrambled for scrambled eggs and chihuahua for Chihuahua cheese.


Title or slogan?

June 20, 2014

The Bizarro of 3/20/14, which I seem to have missed when it came up in March, but caught yesterday reproduced in the July issue of Funny Times:


An ambiguity — Miss France as a (NP) title in a beauty pageant vs. Miss France as a VP remnant of a declarative S, conveying ‘I miss France’.  This gross difference in syntax and semantics corresponds to a pragmatic difference, whether the expression is viewed as printed on a sash (as in beauty pageants) or as the equivalent of a t-shirt slogan — very different sociocultural contexts.

Metatext in the comics

February 12, 2014

Another topic arising from the Stanford comics seminar, again from a proposal for a student paper (which I won’t cite here because the topic might change and in any case is still the student’s work, though I might cite it later with the student’s permission).

The topic is metatext, outside the text of the comic itself and in Elizabeth Traugott’s phrasing in e-mail, serving to “frame the way to read the text”.

At least six types: captions, titles, inserts, mouseovers, accompanying text, and footnotes. I haven’t discussed any of these systematically, but they’ve all come up in my postings on the comics. Some notes.



July 1, 2013

Yesterday’s Dilbert:

The relevant sense of context here, from NOAD2:

the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed: the decision was taken within the context of planned cuts in spending.

Gestures and symbols

June 30, 2013

From many sources, in e-mail and on Facebook, this ad from the Family Research Council:


“Oral Sex and Doggie Style! Family Research Council: Call 2 Fall Is Call 2 FAIL!” by Lisa Derrick 6/27/13:

Gay-hating Family Research Council, now labeled a hate group rather than carrying the Christian branding of being a loving faith-based group, has yet another epic fail on their sweaty social media hands. Their latest campaign, Call 2 Fall complaining about marriage and the repeal of DOMA using hip cool internet lingo is the most hysterically wrong-thinking ad since, well their last one.

… This image from Family Research Council … clearly suggests fellatio followed by modified doggie style intercourse.

So: a “call to fall on our knees” comes out looking like a call to fellatio.


Crowdsourced lexicography

June 8, 2013

In the NYT on May 21st, a front-page story by Leslie Kaufman, “For the Word on the Street, Courts Call Up an Online Witness”, beginning:

The wheels of justice move slowly sometimes, but not, apparently, as slowly as Webster’s New World Dictionary.

Slang has always been a challenge for the courts in cases that involve vulgar or insulting language. Conventional dictionaries lag the spoken word by design. That has lawyers and judges turning to a more fluid source of definitions: Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced collection of slang words on the Internet.

The online site, created by a college freshman in 1999, has found itself in the thick of cases involving everything from sexual harassment to armed robbery to requests for personalized license plates, as courts look to discern meaning and intent in the modern lexicon.


Context, jargon, and clipping

March 26, 2013

From an article in Details magazine for April 2013, p. 64, a quote given here without context:

“The house doesn’t even have a complete back. We had to be careful about the budget and determined that we could add the top of the roof in post.”

Add … in post is baffling without the context. Things get a bit clearer when I tell you that the house in question is the ominous Victorian house next to the motel on the set of the new A&E tv series Bates Motel (a prequel to the movie Psycho), and the speaker is Mark Freeborn, the production designer for the series. But that gets you only part of the way; you also have to work out that post is a clipping of post-production in the jargon of filmmaking and video production. And of course you need to know what post-production refers to as a technical term in this world.


The holiday ball

December 12, 2012

It could just be a card from one baseball fan to another, one of those topical greetings that the card companies specialize it:

But in fact it’s from my New York Times carrier to me (a gentle Christmas Money solicitation, a different sort of specialized message — with the text “Joy & Peace / Hoping we will bring you better news this Holiday Season!”), and it’s not (intentionally) tailored to my interests at  all. What makes it comprehensible is the context, here the geographical context: the carrier and the NYT subscribers are all in the San Francisco Bay Area, scene of the San Francisco Giants win in the World Series this fall. For the moment, then, we are all Giants fans.



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