“Waiting for my rocket to come”

The title of Jason “I’m all about the wordplay” Mraz’s first album, just jam-packed with potential ambiguities, most of them probably irrelevant in the context of his songs, or inconsequential, though several readings obtrude, and some of the ambiguity was surely intended. But as I said in my previous posting, I’m not going to try to adjudicate these matters. Here I’m all about surveying the ambiguity-littered landscape.

(Whenever I talk about potential ambiguities, as in discussions of the celebrated* “We saw her duck”, readers assail me with all sorts of readings I had somehow missed. Hold your fire this time, folks. I’m not attempting to give a definitive list of possible understandings for the Mraz example; my only point is that there’s a whole shitload of ’em.

*Celebrated enough to make it to a Wikipedia list of linguistic examples, though the link there (solutions to a set of problems in semantics) doesn’t discuss the history of the example. Well, who would have thought that such a pedestrian example would have a history worth talking about?)

1. Is the title to be understood as a nominal gerund (as in “Waiting for my rocket to come is really boring” or “The subject of today’s lecture is waiting for my rocket to come” or “I got tired of “waiting for my rocket to come”) or as present-participial VP (as in “I am waiting for my rocket to come” or “Everyone is waiting for my rocket to come”). Depending on style and register, an NP can stand alone, and so can a PRP VP.

2. To come is a subjectless infinitival VP; what is the referent of the missing subject of come? The rocket or the speaker? If the rocket, then we have a “prospective” reading of the infinitive, roughly ‘waiting for my rocket’s coming’. If the speaker, then we have a “precondition” reading of the infinitive, roughly ‘when I have my rocket, I will come’.

3. How to understand the relationship between the speaker and the rocket in the expression my rocket? Is the speaker the creator of the rocket, the person in possession of it, the one who has selected it for some purpose, the one after whom the shape of the rocket is modeled, or what?

4. What is the referent of the missing subject of wait? The speaker, some other person not named in the expression, people in general?

5. What is the sense of come in the expression? The older literal sense ‘arrive’? The metaphoric (and now conventionalized) sense ‘ejaculate (sperm)’? The extension of that metaphoric sense to (gender-neutral) ‘achieve orgasm’? The further metaphoric sense, building on ‘ejaculate’, ‘explode’?

6. What is the sense of rocket in the expression? The literal ‘projectile propelled by ejected gas’? The metonymic extension ‘craft propelled by a rocket engine’? Or various metaphoric developments from the ‘projectile’ sense, in particular ‘penis’? Or the salad green arugula? Or any one of a number of rare or now-obsolete senses (among them in the OED, ‘child’s frock’, ‘type of spindle or lance head’, ‘small rock projecting from the sea’)?

(Yes, there are probably sense distinctions for wait for as well. But I’ve had enough.)

Counting the possible contributions to multiple understanding pretty conservatively, this gives 2 x 2 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 = 324 ways of taking “Waiting for my rocket to come”. Not all of these are compatible semantically, but a great many are, so we get to contemplate understandings like ‘when my arugula arrives, I will explode’ and ‘waiting for my penis’s arrival’ (shades of “Detachable Penis”!).

Real language (as opposed to idealized language) is like that, rife with potential multiple understandings — a characteristic that seems to be a feature of language, not a bug.

One Response to ““Waiting for my rocket to come””

  1. Dolls and action figures « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « “Waiting for my rocket to come” […]

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