Cartoon adventures in lexical semantics

Two cartoons from yesterday — a Mother Goose and Grimm and a Scenes from a Multiverse — that turn on the senses of lexical items. The preposition on and the verb jam, respectively.



Ambiguity in #1, an extended sense in #2.

Books on tape. #1 is pretty simple: the somewhat dim-witted Ralph is advised to get books on tape (that is, audio books, with one sense of on) and instead gets books on tape (with another sense of on, ‘about, concerning’). (The most likely understanding of tape co-varies with the sense of on: magnetic recording tape vs. tape for fastening things.)

From the entry for tape in NOAD2, the two relevant senses:

6 having (the thing mentioned) as a medium for transmitting or storing information: put your ideas down on paper | stored on the client’s own computer.

3 having (the thing mentioned) as a topic: a book on careers | essays on a wide range of issues.

Common prepositions (like on) are many-ways ambiguous, in a fashion that makes the task of the lexicographer devilishly difficult: the senses are typically hard to distinguish, and they can seem to multiply out of hand. For on, NOAD2 has 11 main senses, with subsenses for a number of those, but another lexicographer would probably cut things up differently.

(Also note that the two senses above are not the only ones for books on tape. There’s also, at least, the sense ‘books (located) on top of tape’.)

Jamming culture. The sense of jam in #2 is something like

(X) ’cause to break down, make unworkable’

and it’s related to two recorded (sub)senses of the verb jam, asterisked in this display of the full NOAD2 entry (with subentries numbered for reference):

1 [with obj.] squeeze or pack tightly into a specified space: four of us were jammed in one compartment | people jammed their belongings into cars | [no obj.] : 75,000 refugees jammed into a stadium today to denounce the accord.

[(1a)] push (something) roughly and forcibly into position or a space: he jammed his hat on.

[(1b)] crowd onto (a road) so as to block it: the roads were jammed with traffic.

*[(1c)] cause (telephone lines) to be continuously busy with a large number of calls: listeners jammed WBOQ’s switchboard with calls.

2 become or make unable to move or work due to a part seizing or becoming stuck: [no obj.] : the photocopier jammed | [with obj.] : the doors were jammed open.

*[(2a)] [with obj.] make (a broadcast or other electronic signal) unintelligible by causing interference: GPS signals are weak and easily jammed.

3 [no obj.] informal improvise with other musicians, especially in jazz or blues: the opportunity to jam with Atlanta blues musicians.

(1c) is a specialization of the general sense 1; (2a) is a specialization of the general sense 2; they share the element of making some system unworkable (sense (X)), which can be seen as an extension of them both, and as related to the sense of jam in some uses of the verb jam up:

Their interference really jammed our project up (conveying that the interference impeded the project, possibly to the point of failure)

Their interference really jammed me up (conveying that the interference made things uncomfortable for me, possibly to the point of making it impossible for me to function)

Of course, all this is a side issue to the main point of #2, which is to play with the idea of recursive jamming (or meta-jamming: jamming the jamming).

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