Labeling the world

An old Gary Larson cartoon:


Maybe yes, maybe no. Painting a label L on something or affixing L to something is a kind of ostensive definition: This is an L. And ostensive definitions aren’t fail-safe: just how much of the thing L is associated with to is an L?

Same problem on a smaller scale with labels from label makers, like this Dymo device:


And in fact with pointing arrows in diagrams, as in visual dictionaries:


Relevant to discussions of bodyparts and their names on this blog, as in my 11/30/11 posting “The body and its parts”. Discussion in my 3/13/12 posting “Parts: vulva and vagina”:

In actual practice, people use a number of heuristics to divine the intention of an ostensive definition, including looking for a meaning that would be very informative in the context — neither too specific (‘German shepherd’) nor too broad (‘domestic animal’) — and steering away from meanings that are paired with already known expressions. There’s a huge and fascinating literature on the acquisition of word meaning by children (sometimes conveyed by ostension), exposing these heuristics. (Note that since they’re heuristics, they’re fallible. The meaning acquired can be different, in small details or more massively, from the meaning intended.)

Here I’m interested in the special case of pointing arrows in diagrams — in particular, diagrams of the human body. What does it mean when an arrow points to the area of the mouth? Does the word at the other end of the arrow denote the opening, the external features (the lips), the cavity, or the whole package? The arrow doesn’t tell you.

One Response to “Labeling the world”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Dennis Preston on Facebook:

    When downstate and out-of-state deer-hunters started shooting cows in mid-Michigan, local farmers painted the sides of their stock with a very bright and large “COW.”

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