He meant to say “supine”

Wilson Gray on ADS-L on the 6th:

“She was lying on her back, when she was stabbed, in the prone position.”

He meant to say, “in the supine position,” of course.

There’s no “of course” here. No, that is almost surely not what the speaker meant to say; I’d wager he intended to say exactly what he did say. It’s just not what Wilson thinks the speaker should have said. (Or he’s mocking people who talk this way, though I failed to detect any raised eyebrows in what he wrote so briefly and dismissively.)

We have here a widespread vulgar confusion, a failure to distinguish

between inadvertent errors, things that are “wrong” for the person who produces them, and advertent errors, things that are ok so far as the producer is concerned but “wrong” from the point of view of at least some other people. (Faced with [the first], you call in the psycholinguist; faced with [the second], you call in the sociolinguist.) (Language Log link)

On top of that, Wilson has the sociolinguistic facts wrong, through a confusion between ordinary language and technical language: supine is a technical term for a bodily postion (lying flat on one’s back), used in certain specific domains (anatomy, sport, and shooting, in particular); in those domains, its counterpart (referring to lying flat on one’s belly) is prone, but in ordinary language, outside these specific domains, prone can refer to lying flat in general, and supine isn’t used at all.

The mistake here lies in assuming that technical, domain-specific (medical, botanical, technologcal, etc.) vocabulary is the true, correct, uniquely valid scheme for naming. From my 7/27/15 posting “Misleadingly named animals”, on zoological names:

The terminology “true fly” and “true bug” (etc.) here arises from the attitude that the naming practices of biologists are the only valid (true) naming schemes — what I’ll call technicalism. In the case of fly and bug, technicalism is remarkable from the historical point of view, since the specialized use of these nouns represents a decision to use perfectly ordinary vocabulary as technical terminology by drastically restricting its reference.

The language of correction. Locutions like “(I think) you meant to say X” are customarily used to offer helpful corrections to someone you believe to have made an inadvertent error in language. Such expressions are normally used quite sparingly, since they are face-threatening and  also interrupt the flow of conversation; it’s impolite to correct someone without immediate good reason.

And it’s remarkably rude to “correct” nonstandardisms of various kinds: that’s just a display of your linguistic superiority and an insulting slap at your addressee. (Yes, people say they’re “just doing it for your own good”, trying to help you be better, but who would believe that?)

People often affect to soften the insult by pretending that nonstandardisms are the result of inadvertent error, as if the offender were trying to produce the presriptively correct form but had misfired; this is what results in “What you meant to say was X” —  a bit of nasty false politeness. Akin to saying, nonsensically, “I don’t agree with homosexuality”, meaning at least “I don’t condone homosexuality” and probably “God hates fags and so do I” (all behind a veil of sweet insincerity).

Now, Wilson’s version was a 3rd-person judgment rather than a full-out 2nd-person insult, but (if we take it at face value) it still stinks.

Being prone. The OED3 (June 2007) etymology for prone shows the sense development for its Latin etymon, from ‘bent or leaning forward’ though a series of concrete senses to abstract senses having to do with tendency or disposition:

< classical Latin prōnus bent or leaning forward, inclined downward, lying on the face or stomach, prostrate, sinking, disposed, liable (to), eager, willing, favourable, easy < prō- pro- prefix1 + the same suffix as seen in supernus supern adj. Compare Middle French, French †prone inclined to (1488; earlier prons en (12th cent. in Old French), prosne a (c1480)), having a prone posture (1588).

The development in English looks perverse, because the abstract senses came into English from French first (‘tendency, disposition’, with first cite 1408), followed later by “senses relating to physical position or aspect” (first cite 1610). Relevant subsenses of the second type:

b. Of (the posture or attitude of) a person or animal: such that the belly is next to the ground, or lies beneath the body; lying face downwards or on one’s belly; bending forward and downward; facing downwards. Also fig. Cf. prostrate adj. 1a.

In strict use [especially in examples having to do with sport or shooting] opposed to supine. In later use frequently more generally with reference to lying horizontal, or on the ground, without specific implication as to bodily posture.

c. Of something usually erect or standing, as a tower, column, etc.: lying flat, or in a horizontal position; that has fallen down or been cut down. Cf. prostrate adj. 1b.

The b subsense concerns creatures that have a front and a back, the c subsense objects without such an orientational distinction, so that prone merely means ‘lying flat on the ground’ — as it does in the semantic extension of subsense b.

The Wikipedia page lists most of the technical uses of prone:

In anatomy, the prone position is a position of the body lying face down. It is opposed to the supine position which is face up. Using the terms defined in the anatomical position, the ventral side is down, and the dorsal side is up.

(#1) Anatomical supine and prone

… In competitive shooting, the prone position is the position of a shooter lying face down on the ground. [Actually, lying flat on the belly, but with face forward.] It is considered the easiest and most accurate position as the ground provides extra stability.

(#2) Shooting prone (with face forward)

… The prone position is also used to describe the way pilots and other crew may be positioned in an aircraft; lying on their stomachs rather than seated in a normal upright position

More anatomical uses. From my 2/12/16 posting “Sex positions for gay men”, about positions for anal intercourse

from the bottom’s point of view (I’ve given each a Latin-based name):

(1) bottom lying on his side (a lateral fuck), common called a spoon-fuck or Spooning

(2) bottom lying on his back (a supine fuck), commonly called Missionary

(3) bottom lying on his belly (a prone fuck), commonly called Rear Entry

(4) bottom kneeling (a genicular fuck), commonly called doggie/doggy-fucking

(5) bottom standing and bending over at the waist, offering his ass for another form of Rear Entry (a flectional fuck)

(6) bottom lying on his shoulders, ass up in the air (a scapular fuck), sometimes called just mounting, though that name is too general

(7) bottom sitting on the top’s dick (a sessile fuck): a sit-fuck or Sit On ItCowboy and its variants

Most of these have variants, especially variants having to do with the position of the top’s body.

The technical terminology applies to both vaginal and anal intercourse. But supine and prone are indeed technical terms in this context; missionary and rear entry (or doggie) are the ordinary-language terms.

Who knows supine? As a term for a position of the body, disregarding the historically related but irrelevant items (from NOAD):

adj. supine: failing to act or protest as a result of moral weakness or indolence: supine in the face of racial injustice.

noun supineGrammar a Latin verbal noun used only in the accusative and ablative cases, especially to denote purpose (e.g., dictu in mirabile dictu “wonderful to relate”).

The ADS-L discussion of Wilson Gray’s example quickly turned to the question of who knows bodily supine at all, and so can have it contrast with bodily prone: medical professionals, certainly, and also shooters. Larry Horn posted:

I learned marksmanship in summer camp at 8 or 9, and I did indeed learn prone at that point, but I’m not sure I would have deduced that lying on my back, with or without a rifle in my hands, wouldn’t have *also* been called prone. For all I knew, “prone” meant lying down. I’m sure it was several years after learning “prone” that I learned that supine wasn’t.

To which I added (my reply lightly edited):

My experience as well.  I learned the ‘lying flat on one’s belly’ sense in marksmanship classes as a kid, though I also knew the word as an everyday word for ‘lying flat’.  I just assumed that the riflery use was a specialization in a technical context, and that still seems to me like a reasonable account of the word’s usage.  After all, contextually specialized senses are extremely common.

So I think that NOAD’s version –

2 lying flat, especially face downward

is pretty good, though I might have preferred a division into subentries

with a main subsense ‘lying flat’ and subsidiary subsenses ‘lying flat on one’s belly’ marked as specific to particular technical contexts (anatomy, shooting, etc.).

In any case, insisting that a technical sense is the only correct usage in all contexts is just silly technicalism.

3 Responses to “He meant to say “supine””

  1. John Baker Says:

    While I’m in general agreement with these views, it seems to me that the usage in this case, by a police officer on a TV crime show, was probably in imitation of the stricter medical use, so Wilson’s criticism may have been well-founded after all.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      But the question is merely whether the speaker intended to use prone; whether this intention results from the speaker’s use of the word for ‘lying flat’ in general or from a misapprehension of the medical usage is beside the point. In neither case is it true that he meant to say supine.

  2. [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky, in taking apart an overcorrection, explains the differences between “prone” and […]

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