Yesterday’s Bizarro:


(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Don Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

But all bits of language have to be understood in context — the immediate physical context, the immediate social context (who’s speaking, to whom, for what purposes), the larger socioicultural context, and the context of background knowledge about the world. The task of taking all this stuff into account is substantial, but we manage the task pretty well (though by no means flawlessly) all the time. Still, the task is especially complex for highly compressed material, as on signs.

(I’ve posted many times about the task of understanding what’s going on in cartoons and comics, where the tasks of understanding the visuals and (usually) bits of language are combined, and the context includes the conventions of visual representation in general and the specific conventions of the comics.)

In the cartoon above, the sign says COAT & TIE REQUIRED, leaving it to those who view it to understand that a coat and tie are required in this particular context, which is that of a formal restaurant (to know that this is in fact a formal restaurant, you need to recognize the figure of the snooty maître d’), and that the requirement is confined to this context. And that the requirement applies only to people asking to be seated to eat in the dining room; it wouldn’t apply to someone merely standing by the entrance or to a photographer allowed to come in to take pictures of certain diners. And that the requirement applies only to men, even though some women, like Marlene Dietrich, are fabulous in a coat and tie:


And that the requirement is that the coat and tie must be worn; merely carrying them will not do. And that the coat requirement is for a suit coat, not just any kind of coat (though it could be a sport coat or the coat of a business suit). And that the tie requirement is for a tie that is a standard article of clothing (in our culture); either a four-in-hand or a bow tie would do, but wearing a twist-tie around your neck will not. And that the coat and tie be worn in the standard fashion (in our culture).

Now the sign specifies very little of this, but assumes that someone reading it can supply most of it from knowledge about the relevant cultural conventions. This the guy in the cartoon, a kind of comic literalist, willfully refuses to do.

Note that there is no sign saying NO SHIRT NO SHOES NO SERVICE, though that stricture certainly applies here; that would be necessary only in a place where some number of people were inclined to appear shirtless or shoeless. In fact, even if the guy in #1 wore his coat conventionally and put his tie around his neck, he still wouldn’t be served, because though he’s not shirtless, the shirt he’s wearing is not a dress shirt, but an undershirt (a t-shirt wouldn’t have done either, or even a collarless dress shirt, or even a collared dress shirt with the tie outside the collar). Formal restaurants never specify that a man must wear a dress shirt with a collar, with a tie under the collar (or a bow tie).

(When I was at Princeton, students ate meals at University Commons (or sometimes went out on the town), until they joined an eating club sophomore year. One meal a week we were required to wear a coat and tie, a decree that some rebelled against. One of my friends turned up with a sport coat and a tie around his neck, but shirtless. He was sent back to his room to put on a proper shirt, of course. I assume that others tried appearing barefoot but otherwise appropriately dressed. Hey, they only said coat and tie; nobody mentioned shirts or shoes.)

Actually, past a certain level of formality, formal restaurants don’t have signs specifying coat and tie. At that level, the requirement goes without saying.

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