What happened in vagueness?

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From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s “Ambiguity” entry (edited by Adam Sennet, first published 5/16/11, last substantive revision 2/8/16):

Fun fact: the word ‘ambiguous’, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ambiguous between two main types of meaning: uncertainty or dubiousness on the one hand and a sign bearing multiple meanings on the other. I mention this merely to disambiguate what this entry is about, which concerns a word or phrase enjoying multiple meanings.

In the technical literature on these things, the first notion is known as (among other things) vagueness, while the second is known as (linguistic) ambiguity. Ouch.

(Full disclosure. Z&S — Arnold Zwicky & Jerrold Sadock, “Ambiguity tests and how to fail them” (Syntax and Semantics, 1975) — is a major article on the distinction between ambiguity and vagueness, and it serves as the backdrop for much of the Stanford encyclopedia article. I have a keen, and long-standing,  interest in the topic.)

The OED does indeed make the distinction, though not with as much clarity as you might want (granted, it’s not easy to get a handhold on the distinction). NOAD makes it too, but not in separate subentries (and the cites aren’t much help):

noun ambiguity: the quality of being open to more than one interpretation [ambiguity]; inexactness [vagueness]: we can detect no ambiguity in this section of the Act | ambiguities in such questions are potentially very dangerous.

The listings in thesauruses are all over the map, but then such reference works only claim to list words of similar or related meaning:

N ambiguity, vagueness, polysemy, amphibole, obscurity, abstruseness, doubtfulness, uncertainty, inexactness, doubtfulness, unclarity, dubiety, ambivalence, equivocation, double meaning

Adj ambiguous, polysemous, amphibolous, equivocal, ambivalent, open to debate / argument, arguable, debatable, obscure, unclear, imprecise, vague, abstruse, doubtful, dubious, uncertain

The Stanford encyclopedia provides a brief treatment of “What (Linguistic) Ambiguity Isn’t”, covering not only vagueness, but also context sensitivity, under-specification and generality, and sense and reference transfer.

The vagueness category there primarily concerns how sharply defined the denotations of linguistic expressions are. (be) bald is a textbook case: there is no clear line between being bald and being not bald; there are unclear borderline cases. But virtually all ordinary-language expressions show this kind of vagueness (technical vocabulary, in contrast, regularly is intended to have sharp boundaries built into it by design). So this was not the way Z&S used vagueness; instead, the cases we contrasted with clear examples of lexical ambiguity involved underspecification and generality (or neutrality) with respect to some semantic distinction: English cousin isn’t ambiguous between female cousin and male cousin, but neutral as to these two possibilities, underspecified as to sex.

Context sensitivity we also set aside. The world of bald men takes in men with fringes of hair on the sides and back of the head as well as men with utterly hairless heads, but that doesn’t make be bald ambiguous, or even neutral / unspecified; it’s a matter of context, not meaning. So I can say He is bald, in one context talking about a totally bald man, in another a bald man with an edge fringe, and that difference in use is irrelevant to the Z&S distinction between ambiguity and vagueness.

Similarly with sense and reference transfer in figurative uses. From the Stanford encyclopedia:

When you say, ‘I am parked on G St.’, you presumably manage to refer to the car rather than yourself. Similarly, ‘I am traditionally allowed a final supper’ said by a prisoner is not about himself (there are no traditions regarding him). [Instead, it’s about condemned prisoners, of which the speaker is an exemplar.]

These are off-the-cuff, non-lexicalized, metonymies, again irrelevant to the Z&S distinction between ambiguity and vagueness. (Yes, the topic is extraordinarily complex.)

Back to #1, Ambiguity in Vagueness / Vegas. For many L&Ps — linguists and philosophers — the joke doesn’t really work, because in our technical language we distinguish ambiguity and vagueness. But things are different in ordinary English, where ambiguity covers L&P-vagueness as well as L&P-ambiguity (as the dictionary entries show explicitly), so that the two words are close enough in meaning to count as equivalent in a joke.

What remains is a note on the fixed expression that serves as the basis for the pun in “What happens in Vagueness, stays in Vagueness” (the comma seems to have been part of the original slogan, presumably suggesting the recommended prosody for performing it). The immediate source of #1 is “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, which goes back to the 2003 Las Vegas advertising slogan “What happens here, stays here” (sometimes displayed on billboards without the comma):

(#2) A model for #1

And that goes back to the catchphrase “What happens on tour stays on tour”. Which fairly quickly served as the basis for a snowclone What Happens In, Stays In.

From the beginning, in a Wikipedia entry:

“What happens on tour, stays on tour” is a notorious phrase or saying agreed to by men who get together and travel either interstate or overseas for sporting tours. In essence, the phrase means that all exploits during the tour must be kept strictly confidential, never to be discussed with anyone outside the group. In more recent years, the phrase has also been applied to men attending music gigs, going on business trips and fishing holidays. The term is commonly used in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the United States and is also known as “what goes on tour stays on tour”, “what happens on the road stays on the road”, and, among members of the United States military, speaking of temporary duty assignment, “what happens TDY stays TDY”.

The phrase has been described by Samantha Brett, a writer for The Age, as an “unspoken male pact that for centuries can never be broken”. In essence, if you were there you may discuss the events, but if you were not there, you get nothing. In contrast, Rugby for Dummies describes the phrase as meaning that particularly funny, embarrassing, or debauched moments are for consumption only by the tourists themselves and not casual listeners back home.

It is believed that the phrase originated in 1970 during an overseas rugby union trip, and quickly cascaded into many other sporting codes such as cricket and football. The phrase has subsequently evolved into a “code of honour” amongst those males participating in the trip or tour. Many groups or teams travelling interstate or overseas have adopted the phrase, that mainly relates to sexual conquests and binge drinking. However, the phrase can also relate to other forms of unacceptable behaviour and etiquette.

It has been stated that there are two rules embedded in the code. Firstly, it must be a group of males in team environment, travelling away from home, where they are unconstrained from the usual forms of acceptable behaviour. The second rule is that all exploits must be kept strictly confidential, never to be discussed with anyone outside the group, particularly wives and girlfriends (also known as WAGs).

The phrase however, is not restricted to males.

… American heavy-metal musician Tommy Lee wrote in 2005 that the phrase “what happens on the road stays on the road” was “an old saying that’s been said many ways” and he expressed his view that its origin lay in rock concert touring by writing “Las Vegas stole that shit from us…”. Lee was referring to the catch phrase “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, which was in common circulation before Billy Crystal used it to close the 76th Academy Awards show in 2004 and was spoken variously by people such as Laura Bush and Ben Affleck on television broadcasts.

And it went on to title a 2008 movie. From Wikipedia:


What Happens in Vegas is a 2008 American comedy film directed by Tom Vaughan, written by Dana Fox and starring Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher. The title is based on the Las Vegas marketing catchphrase “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

The actual marketing slogan (in #2) in the middle of this story, from Wikipedia:

[The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA)] is … responsible for the advertising campaigns for Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. Working with the advertising company R&R Partners since 1982, they have developed advertising campaigns including: “Only in Vegas” and [in 2003 ] “What happens here, stays here”.

Somewhere along the line, “What happens on tour, stays on tour” was snowcloned for use in all sorts of contexts. Mark Liberman looked at the Happens In, Stays In snowclone in Language Log on 6/9/08, here. With a follow-up by Josh Millard on his own blog, here.

This snowclone is conceptually brother to the Fight Club snowclone, “The first rule of X is that you don’t talk about X” — on which, see my 4/18/06 LLog posting “All that and talk about Fight Club”. Think of them as as Secrets of Men snowclones.


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