Mortal texting: framing, hypallage

Following up on my brief posting on the NYT story “When Texting Kills”, two things: some comments on the way the story was framed, as about the bad consequences of texting, when in fact the root problem is distracted driving, whatever the source; and notes on the expression distracted driving.

The bones of the story: one driver, engrossed in texting and therefore inattentive to what was going on, ran into a car and killed its driver, and got a prison sentence as a result.

The Times story took a gratuitous swipe at texting and texters, as if texting by itself would lead to such such dire consequences. The story then fits into a larger set of attitudes that damns texting (and Twitter, and Facebook, and more) as a destructive activity and digs at those who engage in it (typically characterized as young and mostly female). There’s a long series of Language Log postings casting a cold eye on these attitudes.

Now, of course it wasn’t texting per se that led to the death of a driver, but prolonged texting while driving. Texting demands attention, it’s a distraction from the task of driving, so of course if you try to text a lot while driving, you’re likely to be dangerous.

Just so with using a cellphone for talking (rather than texting), though I don’t see anyone condemning cellphones as the implements of the devil, or of airheaded young women. The fact is that these days pretty much everyone uses cellphones for talking — to the point where they’re considered virtually an essential element of modern life.

But talking on a cellphone can be just as much a distraction from driving as texting on a cellphone, and hands-on use of cellphones while driving, for any purpose (talking, texting, playing games, watching movies, whatever), has been banned in many jurisdictions:

(This is a wonderful sign, but it’s not a real one. It’s just a demo of one style of sign you can order up on the Danger Sign Generator site. Hat tip to Chris Ambidge, who also tells me that Ontario provincial law changed recently to make hands-on cellphone use while operating a motor vehicle illegal.)

On to the expression distracted driving, which made it into the news (well, the dictionary news) recently when it was named the 2009 Word of the Year by the New World College Dictionary (hat tip to Ben Zimmer). From the web site:

A sign of the times surely, distracted driving is another reflection – and consequence – of our ongoing romance with all things digital and mobile and the enhanced capabilities they provide. While it now may be easier and quicker to feed our multitasking habits, it is not always safe, and many jurisdictions are formalizing that position by making it a crime to text or otherwise use a cellphone while driving. In other words, CrackBerry users beware, lest a charge of DWD (driving while distracted) or DWT (driving while texting) stain your record, not to mention endanger yourself and others. (CrackBerry – the mocking term for the BlackBerry™ and its “addicts” – was the 2006 Word of the Year.)

The term distracted driving is also a linguistic catch, note Webster’s New World® editors. As with drunk driving, it is not the driving that is drunk or distracted, but rather the driver. The target of the modifier distracted has been changed. Called hypallage, this twist is frequently seen in poetry, but as terms like restless nightjuvenile detention center, and careless remark attest, such semantic inversion is not limited to the heights of language use.

As I explained on Language Log a couple of years ago, in hypallage (or “transferred epithet”), an adjective that syntactically modifies a noun is understood as applying semantically not to the referent of that noun but to some other referent (one not necessarily denoted by a noun in the discourse). My examples at the time included free-range mayonnaise (mayonnaise made with eggs from free-range chickens), dodged a narrow bullet (narrowly dodged a bullet), turned the complete game around (turned the game around completely), and the colorful suck extramarital toes (suck toes extramaritally, outside of marriage).

Hypallage is one type of non-predicating modification (recent discussion, with links, here), and it can be difficult indeed to decide when non-predicating modification should be categorized as hypallage — in indigenous nudity and contagious countries (from the posting I just linked to), for instance.

6 Responses to “Mortal texting: framing, hypallage”

  1. MD Says:

    I’m one of those people who feels it should be against the law to talk on the phone while driving. But even I disagree that talking on the phone is as distracting as texting. Few people can text without occasionally (at least) looking at the phone, not to mention that texting involves several additional layers of mental activity (thinking of what you’re going to “say,” rephrasing it for a text message, and then physically typing it).

  2. Dan S Says:

    Fascinating and fun, as usual. But one example bothers me: although the bullet isn’t narrow, nor the eyebrow inquisitive, I’m not sure that those toes aren’t extramarital in their own right.

    There are ten toes on this world that I’ve married. All the other toes are, from my view, perfectly extramarital ones. What’s fun for me in that phrase is the writer’s having granted toes their individuality, such that they can be wedded to you, or not.

    (I’m not sure that _individuality_ is the attribute in question. It’s not agency at all, I guess. But I am quite sure that YOU will have the apt word for such a characteristic, normally thought of as a human one, in this case ascribed to such toes. As in “clever fingers”, or “happy feet”, or “capable hands”, wherein the fun is similarly in the unexpected predication of cognition or sentiance onto bodily extremities..)

  3. Porn hypallage? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] posted on several times, in particular here (with, among other examples, free-range mayonnaise) and here (focusing on distracted […]

  4. Annals of hypallage « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] or hypallage, a figure of speech I’ve talked about several times (most recently on this blog, here, with reference to the expression distracted driving, and with a link back to a Language Log […]

  5. Undistracted driving « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] A Brainwaves cartoon about distracted driving: […]

  6. Shirtless hypallage | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in “Mortal texting: framing, hypallage” on this blog on 11/8/09, the examples distracted driving and drunk driving. And in “Annals […]

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