Two from Fairbanks

Two cartoons recently passed on to me by Chris Waigl in Fairbanks AK: a Cheer Up, Emo Kid (CUEK), about technical uses of words; and (actually from Alaska) a Tundra, about point of view in the interpretation of compound nouns.



CUEK: technically, … Technically Correct Man is appealing to a semantic distinction made in certain contexts (in medicine and biology) between the adjectives poisonous and venomous. From NOAD:

adj. poisonous: [a] (of a substance or plant) causing or capable of causing death or illness if taken into the body: poisonous chemicals. [b] (of an animal) producing poison as a means of attacking enemies or prey; venomous: a poisonous snake… USAGE Poisonous and venomous are not identical in meaning, although they are often used interchangeably [this is not quite right as a description of ordinary usage; see below]. A poisonous animal or plant produces toxins that are harmful when the animal or plant is touched or eaten, whereas a venomous snake or other creature is able to inject venom by means of its fangs, spines, or stingers.

Indeed, poisonous is regularly used in ordinary English to refer to venomous creatures (as well as dangerous substances and plants). And venomous is used to refer to plants with stinging hairs or toxic spines — stinging nettles, for instance, or,  spectacularly, Dendrocnide moroides or gympie gympie of Australia. From Wikipedia:

(#3) D. moroides, in the Urticaceae or nettle family

Dendrocnide moroides [Dendrocnide ‘tree nettle’; moroides ‘resembling Morus, the mulberry bush’], also known as the stinging brush, mulberry-leaved stinger, gympie gympie, gympie, gympie stinger, stinger, the suicide plant, or moonlighter, is common to rainforest areas in the north east of Australia. It is best known for stinging hairs that cover the whole plant and deliver a potent neurotoxin when touched. It is the most toxic of the Australian species of stinging trees. The fruit is edible if the stinging hairs that cover it are removed.

But with this exception (in which toxic hairs or spines are the functional equivalent of fangs or stingers), we don’t use venomous to refer to plants or substances that are dangerous when ingested or absorbed on contact; no one talks about deadly nightshade as venomous, or poison ivy. In ordinary English, poisonous regularly covers the territory of technical venomous, but not the reverse.

So: in ordinary English venomous is restricted in a way that poisonous is not, and this difference corresponds to a difference in the source nouns venom and poison. From NOAD:

noun venom: a poisonous substance secreted by animals such as snakes, spiders, and scorpions and typically injected into prey or aggressors by biting or stinging.

noun poison: a substance that is capable of causing the illness or death of a living organism when introduced or absorbed.

This definition of poison here (and in at least some other dictionaries) doesn’t stipulate a method of introduction — injection is a possibility — so that venoms are poisons, but not vice versa. A usage that would license the everyday usage of poisonous to cover venomous, but not (generally) vice versa.

But then there’s the real point of the cartoon, to mock people who uncooperatively — in this case, fatally — insist on failing to recognize other people’s intentions in speaking as they do, in favor of maintaining a distinction in some specialized technical domain.

A note on the cartoon. The website identifies Cheer Up, Emo Kid (CUEK) as “A webcomic about life, love & loss”. The cartoon is drawn by someone named Enzo, and the archive has the strip back to 10/10/09, but otherwise I know nothing about it.

Tundra: hunting safety. About the interpretation of the compound hunting safety. Conventionally understood from the point of view of the hunter, with a Subject reading ‘safety while hunting, safety for hunters, hunter safety’ (hunter safety is in fact a common synonym for the compound in this sense). A typical occurrence:


In the cartoon, the compound is understood rather differently by the moose, who’s the game or prey in the hunting situation. From the moose’s point of view, the compound has an Object reading ‘safety while being hunted, safety for the hunted, game / prey safety’.

Compound nouns are notoriously polysemous. Many of them have conventional interpretations, but there are always plenty of alternative ways to understand them — though most of these will be implausible in the real world, or in the context in which they’re used, or they’ll just be absurd. In cartoon worlds, on the other hand, the constraints of plausibility and sensicality can sometimes be broken. A moose can apply to take a hunting safety seminar, for example.

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