Body-location, event-location

The One Big Happy from 1/31, expoiting a pervasive ambiguity in location adverbials, in this case the interrogative where:

(#1) Body-location where (Joe’s intended interpretation) vs. event-location where (Ruthie’s perceived interpretation)

OBH has been here before, at least once — in this 2/17/16 strip, the subject of my 3/8/16 posting “Where?”:


From the 2016 posting:

Anthony’s place adverbial in two places can have either of two interpretations: as referring to two locations on his arm, or as referring to two locations where the arm-breaking event took place. Anthony intends the first (the body-location interpretation), Ruthie gets the second (the event-location interpretation).

Intuitively, the adverb has narrower scope in the first interpretation, wider in the second, and this intuition corresponds to what happens when a clause has adverbials of both types: when the adverbials are tightly adjoined to the remainder of the clause, the body-location adverbial comes first, inside, closer to the verb, with the event-location second, outside, further from the verb:

(1a) Kim shot Lee in the arm on Main St. /  (1b) *Kim shot Lee on Main St. in the arm.

The opposite order is possible, but only if the body-location adverbial is loosely adjoined, treated as an afterthought:

(2) Kim shot Lee on Main St.– in the arm.

The obvious analysis is to treat the body-location adverbials as V-modifiers and the event-location adverbials as VP-modifiers.

The ambiguity is the source of misunderstandings in real life. It’s also the basis for a very old joke in English, which I’ll take up below.

Digression. Another way to think of the ambiguity is as involving inalienable location (for body-location adverbials, bodypart nouns being, with kinship nouns, canonical examples of inalienably possessed nouns) vs. alienable location (for event-location adverbials). See my 7/27/18 posting “Are You My Bottom?”, with a section on alienable vs. alienable possession, which concludes

The [Wikipedia] article illustrates overt marking of (in)alienability in various languages, via inflectional morphology, adpositions, and word orders, in particular. English has no such overt indications, but the distinction nevertheless plays a role in how we use and understand nouns and possessives.

That passage alerts us to the possibility that in some languages the distinction between body-location adverbials and event-location adverbials might be explicitly marked, by the choice of different case forms or different adpositions. Or by different lexical choices — with, say, a body-location where vs. a morphologically unrelated event-location where (interrogative, as above, or relative, as in the place where I was hurt). No doubt there’s literature on the subject.

The Jest Book. The body-location / event-location ambiguity in English (and many other European languages) makes for easy cheap jokes that I’ve heard since I was a child, so I thought to google for some — and immediately got a kind of grand-daddy of the type in English, from the Elfinspell site of (retyped) open source materials:

From Joe Miller’s Jest Book, which is a pirated but exact version of The Jest Book, selected and arranged by Mark Lemon, except for some Americanized spellings; New York: Hurst & Co., no date [Amazon says 1st published 1864]; pp. 196-218. (Jests 900-999)

CMXXVI. [926] — Accurate Description. A certain lawyer received a severe injury from something in the shape of a horsewhip. “Where were you hurt?”  said a medical friend. “Was it near the vertebra?” [body-location PP]  — “No, no,” said the other; “it was near the racecourse.” [event-location PP]

(There’s also the Gutenberg project eBook of The Jest Book.)

Mid-19th century jokes do not in general play well in the 21st; people who paid for Elfinspell’s reproductions tend to complain bitterly about the quality of the humor. But this one is evergreen.

From Wikipedia on Joe Miller and the joke book named after him:

Joseph Miller (1684 – 15 August 1738) was an English actor, who first appeared in the cast of Sir Robert Howard’s Committee at Drury Lane in 1709 as Teague.

… After Miller’s death, John Mottley (1692–1750) brought out a book called Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum (1739), published under the pseudonym of Elijah Jenkins Esq. at the price of one shilling. This was a collection of contemporary and ancient coarse witticisms, only three of which are told of Miller. This first edition was a thin pamphlet of 247 numbered jokes. This ran to three editions in its first year.

Later (not wholly connected) versions were entitled with names such as “Joe Miller’s Joke Book”, and “The New Joe Miller” to latch onto the popularity of both Joe Miller himself and the popularity of Mottley’s first book. It should be noted that joke books of this format (i.e. “Mr Smith’s Jests”) were common even before this date. It was common practice to learn one or two jokes for use at parties etc.

Owing to the quality of the jokes in Mottley’s book, their number increasing with each of the many subsequent editions, any time-worn jest came to be called “a Joe Miller”, a Joe-Millerism, or simply a Millerism.

Then on the compiler of the 1864 book, from Wikipedia:

Mark Lemon (30 November 1809, in London – 23 May 1870, in Crawley) was founding editor of both Punch [the humor magazine] and The Field [the field sports magazine].

… Lemon was an actor of ability, a pleasing lecturer and a successful impersonator of Shakespearian characters. He played in the 1851 production of Not So Bad As We Seem, a play written by Edward Bulwer and featuring many notable Victorians (including Charles Dickens). He also wrote a host of novelettes and lyrics, over a hundred songs, a few three-volume novels, several Christmas fairy tales and a volume of jests [ah, there we are]. He was a stalwart of the London Gentlemen’s club the Savage Club.


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