Three comic rabbits for December

Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit on the first of the month. The Mother Goose and Grimm from 12/30, with a textbook attachment ambiguity. The Rhymes With Orange for today, with an updated version of a classic tongue twister. And the Bizarro for today, with a Mr. Potato Head  wielding a terrible slang pun.

MGG. Chasing a kid on a bike ‘on a bike, chasing a kid’ (how Grimm, disingenuously, understands it) vs. ‘chasing a kid who was on a bike’ (how Mother Goose intends it and how it would ordinarily be understood, given the propensity of dogs to chase bicycles and other vehicles):


(#1) A variant of a textbook example of structural ambiguity, He saw the man with a telescope

(A number of similar examples have appeared on this blog, e.g. the headline Public urged to keep track of squirrels with mobiles.)

What’s at issue is how a modifying phrase is parsed with the remainder of the sentence, whether it’s attached low in the constituent structure or high. What’s at issue is low attachment, here with the PP on a bike or with a telescope as a postnominal modifier (within an object NP) denoting something possessed, in a wide sense of possession (cf. He saw the dog with a spot on its back ‘… the dog that had a spot on its back’) vs. high attachment, wth the PP as an adverbial of means (within the VP or as a clause modifier) (cf. He groomed the dog with a brush ‘he used a brush to groom the dog’).

My postings on attachment ambiguities are inventoried in a Page on this blog. A persistent theme in these postings is the significance of linguistic context, background knowledge, expectation, and real-world plausibility in the way particular examples are likely to be understood in context. An important concomitant of this observation is that potential attachment ambiguities are all over the place, but are rarely noticed because these other factors intervene.

For instance: you’ll naturally read He saw the dog with a spot on its back as illustrating low attachment, disregarding the high-attachment reading ‘he used a spot on its back to see the dog’ because that’s apparently preposterous (but not utterly out of the question: he could, for example, be using that spot as a way to detect a dog that is otherwise camouflaged); and you’ll naturally read He groomed the dog with a brush as illustrating high attachment, disregarding the low-attachment reading ‘he groomed the dog that had a brush’ because that refers to an unlikely event.

(Some other types of textbook structural ambiguities are the subject of my LLog posting of 4/4/08, “Textbook ambiguities”, which focuses especially on the ‘distributed’ vs. ‘narrow’ readings of NPs of the form Adj N1 and N2, like old men and women. Note that the distributed structure is analogous to high attachment of PP, the narrow structure to low attachment.)

Rhymes. It seems to have started in 1850, but there’s now a fresh twist:


(#2) She sells sea shells in sales offshore

From Wikipedia:

Tongue-twisters may rely on rapid alternation between similar but distinct phonemes (e.g., s [s] and sh [ʃ]) … For example, the following sentence was claimed as “the most difficult of common English-language tongue-twisters” by William Poundstone.

The seething sea ceaseth and thus the seething sea sufficeth us.

These deliberately difficult expressions were popular in the 19th century. The popular “she sells sea shells” tongue twister was originally published in 1850 as a diction exercise. The term tongue twister was first applied to these kind of expressions in 1895.

“She sells sea shells” was turned into a popular song in 1908, with words by British songwriter Terry Sullivan and music by Harry Gifford. According to folk etymology, it was said to be inspired by the life and work of Mary Anning, an early fossil collector. However, there is no factual basis for this claim, especially since the expression predates Anning’s life.

She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure.
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells.

(More discussion in my 9/22/12 posting “Tongue twisters”.)

The Rhymes cartoon brings things up to date with shell, short for shell corporation/company, with metaphorical shell. From Wikipedia:

A shell corporation is a company or corporation that exists only on paper and has no office and no employees [it is but an empty shell], but may have a bank account or may hold passive investments or be the registered owner of assets, such as intellectual property, or ships. Shell companies may be registered to the address of a company that provides a service setting up shell companies, and which may act as the agent for receipt of legal correspondence (such as an accountant or lawyer). The company may serve as a vehicle for business transactions without itself having any significant assets or operations. Sometimes, shell companies are used for tax evasion, tax avoidance, and money laundering, or to achieve a specific goal such as anonymity. Anonymity may be sought to shield personal assets from others, such as a spouse when a marriage is breaking down, from creditors, from government authorities, besides others.

… Typical countries of domicile of shell companies are offshore financial centers like Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands including Guernsey and Jersey in Europe, Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, and Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, Panama in Central America, and Hong Kong and Singapore in Asia.

Bizarro. Two Potato Heads meet in a kitchen, where a young hipster dude is hoping to score some primo grass (using the Adj baked ‘stoned, high on pot’), while an older traditional guy is engaged in an occasional cannibalistic — or self-sacrificial — practice of his kind (using the culinary Adj baked):


(#3) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 6 in this strip — see this Page.)

There’s a Page on this blog inventorying postings about the Potato Head cartoon meme. Potato Heads have been known to have a taste for potatoes.

Then, the ambiguity: druggy baked vs. culinary baked in the collocation baked potato. Overview from NOAD, on the PSP baked of the V bake, used as an Adj:

adj. baked: 1 (of food) cooked by dry heat in an oven: baked apples. 2 North American informal intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, especially marijuana: I just want to get baked and watch a movie.

Culinary baked. The Wikipedia entry gives the impression that the semantics of baked potato is entirely transparent and unspecialized, but this is misleading. The entry begins:

A baked potato, or [BrE] jacket potato, is a potato that has been baked for eating. When well cooked, a baked potato has a fluffy interior and a crisp skin. It may be served with fillings and condiments such as butter, cheese, sour cream, gravy or even ground meat.


(#4) Your basic baked potato, from the bon appétit site

This is not just any potato: it must be a whole potato (not sliced or quartered or whatever), baked in its skin / jacket (not peeled — hence the BrE label), and split open after baking, presented as above, with butter, salt and pepper, and perhaps some herbs. Given this presentation, the original potato must be reasonably large.

That is: a baked potato, in the culinary sense, isn’t just a potato that’s been baked, but something much more culture-specific. (Similar remarks hold for baked apple.)

Even better, there’s one step further, hinted at (but not named) in the Wikipedia entry: the loaded baked potatoloaded is a conventional commercial term in this context:


(#5) A fully loaded baked potato, from the Delish site: with butter, sour cream, chopped chives, sliced green onions, shredded cheddar cheese, crumbled bacon bits

You will now see that the traditional Potato Head in #3 is assembling the accompaniments for loaded baked potatoes. He’s invited the young Potato Head over to “get baked”, so the only question is whether they’re going into the oven together or (in my opinion more likely) the old guy  is preparing to bake and eat his young buddy, with all the trimmings. Appetites run strong in the Potato Head world.

Druggy baked. I’m not entirely sure exactly what semantic route takes us from culinary baked to intoxicated baked (intoxicated with either alcohol or marijuana), but it’s duplicated by culinary fried. In any case, we have, from GDoS:

adj. baked: … 3 (U.S. campus) drunk. [precedents from early 20th century; campus slang reports from 1987 on] 4 (U.S.) under the influence of marijuana. [alternative to wasted, stoned, high; campus slang reports from 1987 on; 2002 “teen lingo” quote, “John’s eyes are all bloodshot. I think he got baked at recess.”]

Remember: the name of the strip is Bizarro.

One Response to “Three comic rabbits for December”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    A similar tongue-twister, which I originally learned from my maternal grandfather (with a warning/plea not to let my grandmother know he had taught it to me), designed to cause the speaker to say a naughty word:

    I slit a sheet,
    A sheet I slit,
    And on that slitted sheet I sit.

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