Books on tape

More word play in John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands:


Exploiting an ambiguity in the preposition on and a concomitant ambiguity in the noun tape — an ambiguity that’s been around ever since magnetic tape was first used to record readings of books (quite some time ago, though audiobooks didn’t become a significant business until the 1980s). Meanwhile, the Books on Tape company was founded in 1975, but book on tape is still commonly used as a synonym of audiobook.

(Hat tip to Michael Palmer.)

So the ambiguity has been sitting there, very prominently, for at least 40 years, and it’s scarely a surprise that cartoonists have exploited it in their work. You can easily google up half a dozen versions of the joke, and in fact I’ve posted one of them on this blog.

From my 9/12/15 posting “Cartoon adventures in lexical semantics”:

(#2) Mother Goose and Grimm

the somewhat dim-witted Ralph is advised to get books on tape (that is, audio books, with one sense of on) and instead gets books on tape (with another sense of on, ‘about, concerning’). (The most likely understanding of tape co-varies with the sense of on: magnetic recording tape vs. tape for fastening things.)

From the entry for tape in NOAD2, the two relevant senses:

6 having (the thing mentioned) as a medium for transmitting or storing information: put your ideas down on paper | stored on the client’s own computer.

3 having (the thing mentioned) as a topic: a book on careers | essays on a wide range of issues.

Common prepositions (like on) are many-ways ambiguous, in a fashion that makes the task of the lexicographer devilishly difficult: the senses are typically hard to distinguish, and they can seem to multiply out of hand. For on, NOAD2 has 11 main senses, with subsenses for a number of those, but another lexicographer would probably cut things up differently.

(Also note that the two senses above are not the only ones for books on tape. There’s also, at least, the sense ‘books (located) on top of tape’.)

No doubt you can think of still more senses that could be played on.

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