Yesterday, we had *One Big Happy*‘s Ruthie and James at cross-purposes on the meaning of *bigger* (Ruthie was bent on teaching arithmetic, while James wandered into other territory). Another exchange today, on *higher*:

From yesterday:

The adjective *big* and its comparative form *bigger* are understood with reference to some scale S: X is *big* if it’s towards the high end of S, and X is *bigger* than Y if it’s higher on S than Y is. What distinguishes Ruthie and James is the S that they’re appealing to. For Ruthie, S is the ordering of natural numbers 1, 2, 3, … (which makes sense in the strip, since the context is a discussion of arithmetic), but for James, it’s the ordering of written symbols according to their physical size.

So it is for *high* and *higher*: X is *higher* than Y if it’s higher on S than Y is. For Ruthie, teaching very elementary arithmetic, S is once again the ordering of natural numbers 1, 2, 3, … But for James, this time it’s the ordering of objects according to their distance from the ground: standing on a box makes everything higher. (James could have gone for voice pitch and counted in a higher voice, though that would be hard to show visually. No doubt you can imagine other ways of counting higher, involving marijuana for instance.)

The point here is that these positive and comparative adjectives don’t come with a fixed S; they are unspecified as to S, and people choose an S to fit the context they’re in. In a kind of passive resistance to Ruthie’s pedagogical ways, James seems determined to avoid the numerical scale as S.

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This entry was posted on November 14, 2014 at 10:09 am and is filed under Context, Linguistics in the comics, Semantics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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