One Big Happy language

Three OBH strips on language matters that I’ve saved up: Ruthie vs. ambiguity, Ruthie wielding analogy, and Joe vs. ambiguity in pronominal usage:



loner, loaner. In #1, Joe means the first, but Ruthie seems not to have come across that word, or else she understood what Joe said to be the second (homophonous with the first) and then couldn’t shake her first interpretation (however absurd that might be in the context). Both things happen.

childing. In #2, ,Ruthie’s grandmother uses parenting ‘being or acting as a parent’ (derived from the noun parent) in good parenting skills — Ruthie probably doesn’t know that parenting skills is a common collocation (common only relatively recently, though the verb parent is attested from the 17th century on) —  and Ruthie knows that the nouns parent and child are customarily paired with one another. On the basis of that knowledge and the occurrence of parenting skills, by analogy she creates childing skills. Now the noun child has been verbed, in several senses, though not the way Ruthie is using it in the strip, and in any case these attested uses are now rare or archaic, according to OED3 (Dec. 2013). So Ruthie is moving into new lexical territory here.

There’s also a sociocultural point. These days we (or at least those of us who are middle-class Americans) tend to view being a good parent as a skill you have to learn, while children merely express their natures in their behavior; what kids have to learn is how people are exprected to behave, not some set of skills for fulfilling the role of child well. So as things stand, we have no use for the notion of childing skills.

How do you spell … In #3, Joe’s father asks him, How do you spell “mountain”?, and already there’s an issue (two linked issues, in fact). The obvious thing, which Joe latches onto immediately, is that the sg. pronoun you can be used to refer to the addressee (as Joe takes it to be referring) or to have generic reference, roughly like the very formal generic pronoun one (as his father intended it to be understood, as parallel to How does one spell “mountain”?).

Linked to this distinction is another one, in the use of the auxiliary do. Joe’s father is not, in fact, merely asking how people spell a word — people will differ in the spellings they use, and some spellings might be very common without their being spellings that Joe’s father would accept. His question is a normative one, about the standard spelling for a word: not about what people do, but about what they should do.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: