Cartoon ambiguities

A recent One Big Happy, with Ruthie alarmed by her understanding of legal size (paper); and a David Borchart cartoon from the latest (July 28th) New Yorker that turns on the multiple meanings of the verb see:

(#1) (#2) Legal size paper. In #1, Ruthie is delighted to get some legal size paper — until she reflects on the adjective legal in legal size, which she takes to be opposed to illegal. NOAD2’s senses and uses for legal include a family directly related to the law —

of, based on, or concerned with the law: the American legal system.

• appointed or required by the law: a legal requirement.

plus the sense that Ruthie understood:

permitted by law: he claimed that it had all been legal.

and the very specialized sense in cartoon #1:

(of paper) measuring 8 ½ by 14 inches.

An OED draft addition of June 2007 expands on this, and provides the (rather distant) connection to the law:

legal pad   n. a pad of lined (usually yellow) A4 paper [that is, 8 ½ x 14 inches, rather than 8 ½ x 11 inches], of a type habitually used by lawyers or legal secretaries.

(OED2’s entry for legal is somewhat chaotic and is much in need of revision, though it does include an earlier expression for legal size paper:

legal cap n. and adj. U.S. ruled writing paper used chiefly for legal documents. 1937   E. J. Labarre Dict. Paper 142   Legal cap, a size of paper 14″ x 8½″. )

Seeing a therapist. The image in the Borchart cartoon (#2) shows the historically oldest verb see; from NOAD2:

perceive with the eyes; discern visually: in the distance she could see the blue sea

The woman on the bench is beginning to see (perceive with her eyes), though still somewhat dimly, the figure of a therapist.

Meanwhile, what she says on the phone would be understood as belonging to quite a different family of verbs, the ‘meet (with)’ verbs see:

• meet (someone one knows) socially or by chance: I went to see Caroline | I saw Colin last night.

• meet regularly as a boyfriend or girlfriend: some guy she was seeing was messing her around.

• consult (a specialist or professional): you may need to see a solicitor.

• give an interview or consultation to: the doctor will see you now.

(In the case of #2, without the image we would understand the woman to be using the third of these, the ‘consult’ verb see.)

NOAD2 has over 20 entries under see, not counting idioms and other fixed expressions (the consequence of many centuries of semantic extensions and syntactic innovations, in many different directions); this is fairly conservative, but even if some of these can be viewed as the “same” lexical item in different syntactic contexts, it seems inevitable that we’ll need to posit more than one lexical item see. In particular, the ‘perceive with the eyes’ see and the ‘consult’ see in #2 are just homophonous verbs, only historically related. The caption in #2 has a striking ambiguity in it, and it’s all the funnier because the two verbs involved are so semantically distant from one another, and the first is so absurd in context, while the second is unremarkable (in the sociocultural context).

2 Responses to “Cartoon ambiguities”

  1. David Borchart | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] A blog mostly about language « Cartoon ambiguities […]

  2. Michael Vnuk Says:

    The explanation of A4 you give at ‘legal pad’ does not match Wikipedia’s definition in the A series of paper sizes under the entry ‘ISO 216’:

    The most frequently used of this series [the A series] is the size A4 which is 210 mm × 297 mm (8.27 in × 11.7 in). For comparison, the letter paper size commonly used in North America (8.5 in × 11 in (216 mm × 279 mm)) …

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