Context context context; and variation

Back in March, Luc Vartan Baronian posted on Facebook this semantics argument between his two children:

Daughter (4): I love my piggy bank.
Son (7): You mean your froggy bank?
Daughter: No! My piggy bank.
Son: But it’s a froggy, so it should be a froggy bank.
Daughter: No. It’s STILL a piggy bank.

Yesterday, Luc (recalling my immersion in penguiniana) sent this on to me, asking me if I had a penguin bank. My answer was fairly complex, though basically I spoke in favor of Luc’s daughter’s position.

Background. The noun bank that has to do with money (there’s an entirely separate lexical item in river bank) refers to a type of financial institution, which (among other things) provides a place for customers to deposit money. From this function of banks, the compound piggy bank was created; it involves a metaphorical extension of bank to embrace another sort of storage place for money, namely a personal container for coins, originally in the shape of a pig. As NOAD2 puts it:

a container for saving money in, especially one shaped like a pig, with a slit in the top through which coins are dropped

Discussion. Note that NOAD2 has no entry for bank ‘container for coins’. Piggy bank enters the language as a unit, a name for a very specific sort of object, and has now been extended to coin containers in non-porcine shapes: note the “especially” in the NOAD2 definition, which tells us that the speakers the dictionary is reporting on take porcine containers to be prototypical piggy banks, but admit piggy banks in other shapes.

This is my usage. I told Luc that I happened to have no piggy banks in the shape of a penguin (this admission is not an invitation to send one to me), but if I had one, I’d call it a penguin piggy bank.

And indeed there are such things, referred to in this way:

(They are also called coin penguins.)

A first complexity. As I said to Luc,

It’s also true that a piggy bank can be called a bank for short, in a context where it’s clear that you’re talking about coin containers rather than financial institutions, and in such contexts you could talk about a froggy bank, a penguin bank, etc. Context, context, context.

But then there’s the possibility that some speakers have in fact come to treat piggy bank as a semantically transparent compound, in the process metaphorically extending (unmodified) bank to coin containers as well as financial institutions. There is evidence for this analysis for some speakers; you can find occurrences of penguin bank to refer to things like the coin penguin pictured above.

So there are people with the analysis assumed by Luc’s son, as well as those with the analysis in NOAD2, the one that Luc’s daughter and I have. Look, variation is everywhere. I can’t see that there’s any point in maintaining doggedly  that one of these variants has to be the correct and true one.

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