Ruthie copes

Two recent One Big Happy strips, featuring Ruthie: the sign strip and the ladder strip



Signs. In #1, Ruthie confronts a situation that happens with some frequency in real life: you come up against a context (frequently at a door) in which two signs give contradictory instructions. As in #1, where one sign says PUSH (on this bar to gain entry) and the other says USE OTHER DOOR ➟ (use the door to the right to gain entry). In such cases, there’s usually some principle that tells you which instruction takes precedence; a Ruthian stalemate is not the intended conseqence.

In this case, the principle is: the newer instruction takes precedence. But for Ruthie to apply it, she’d have to know that a PUSH bar comes as part of a door package from manufacturers, so the USE OTHER DOOR sign must be an addition, hence newer, hence the operative instruction. This is extraordinarily culture-specific knowledge, which children or outsiders to the culture can’t really be expected to command.

But there’s also a practical solution to the problem: there’s a door right in front of Ruthie, she can try the PUSH instruction, and either gain entrance to not, and in the latter case she goes on to the next door. Very few little children would react the way Ruthie does: they’d try and see (well, they’ll try almost anything to see what happens).

latter – ladder. It’s a feature of many American varieties of English that these two words (and a bunch of similar pairs) are at least sometimes pronounced identically, or are pronounced with a difference that is below the level of consciousness for most of these speakers (though it helps them to identfy which of the two words they’re hearing): in these productions, ladder has a physically longer [æ] vowel than latter does, while the medial consonant is the same, a voiced alveolar tap or flap [ɾ]. The result is that in perception speakers of these varieties of English, like Ruthie, are likely to confound pronunciations of latter and ladder.

So Ruthie’s grandmother says latter, a rare word, and Ruthie hears ladder, a much more common one, and her grandmother’s latter days makes Ruthie think of ladder days, maybe his days as a fireman on ladders (while her brother Joe thinks of roofers climbing up ladders).

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