A generic penguin ban sign (sold on Amazon, a CD Visionary no-penguins button):

(#1) What’s banned? Spheniscid birds. Why? Who knows. (They smell. They steal fish. They get underfoot. Whatever.)

and a ban — in a list of prohibitions against public vice or indecency — on the door of Loretta’s Authentic Pralines on N. Rampart St. in New Orleans (photo from the TripAdvisor South Africa site):

(#2) What’s banned? Who knows. Why? Because they’re a vice (like drinking or smoking) or are indecent (like profanity or nudity), presumably the latter.

From Loretta’s Facebook page:


Celebrated as the “Queen of Pralines,” boasting a menu full of delicious creole sweets and treats — pralines, stuffed beignets, king cake, cookies, pies, sauces, and soul food. First Black female chef to own and operate a (successful) praline shop.

(Both pralines and beignets are serious matters in New Orleans.)

Item #2 appeared on Facebook yesterday, with this query from Chris Ambidge to me:

Arnold — you’re our resident penguin expert. Do you have any idea what they [penguins] got up to that this sign had to be posted?

The birds come into it on the metaphor train. What’s being banned is this clothing:


And guys like these are said to be wearing penguin pants, or penguins for short (or to themselves be penguins), because of the visual figure illustrated here:

(#5) Dick Van Dyck’s penguin dance from the movie Mary Poppins; you can watch the full routine here (#6)

The use of penguin as a slang term for ‘sagging / saggy pants’ (or for someone wearing such pants) seems to be recent enough that it hasn’t made it into GDoS or even Urban Dictionary.

The sag chronicles. From “Sagging Pants Butt Up Against the Law: Yet the droopy trousers trend lives on”, by Emily Spivack in Smithsonian Magazine on 4/1/13:

Wearing one’s pants really low makes the wearer walk penguin-like.  The person waddles around, maintaining a stilted gait so that the pants stay in place. Cinched with a belt, in extreme cases underneath the backside with boxers visible, the pants make legs look overly short. Oversized shirts elongate the torso leading to skewed, caricature-like proportions.

This passage comes after Spivack’s lead-in:

A campaign in Massachusetts is determined to put an end to wearing saggy pants by enforcing a law enacted back in 1784 and amended in 1987. According to Section 16, “Open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior,” under the “Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order”:

A man or woman, married or unmarried, who is guilty of open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars.

Up to three years in jail and a few hundred dollar fine just for wearing your pants low?!

… While the Massachusetts campaign may seem straight out of an Onion article, sagging pants have been a hot topic since the early 2000s, particularly because states, cities and local communities around the United States have tried to enact laws that would provide fines, penalties, potential jail time for those who sag. Memphis, Tennessee, Delcambre, Louisiana, and Fort Worth, Texas are just a few of the cities to try to enforce anti-sagging laws to mixed results, including a successful “Urkeling” enforcement strategy derived from the character Steve Urkel from the television show “Family Matters.”

The enforcement of these laws is controversial because the majority of people who choose to make this fashion statement are young African American males. As a result, prosecution is generally equated with racial profiling, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to write the blog post, “Why does the ACLU care about saggy pants?”

Note that Loretta’s (in #2) is definitely a Black establishment, but it’s also one with an explicit commitment to what it sees as Christian principles, and that’s where the anti-penguin stance comes from. Loretta doesn’t want nasty dudes in her place.

Some historical background from the Wikipedia article:

Sagging is a manner of wearing trousers or jeans that sag so that the top of the trousers or jeans are significantly below the waist, sometimes revealing much of the underwear.

Sagging is predominantly a male fashion.

… Sagging first peaked in popularity during the 1990s and remained popular into the mid 2000s, but it has recently made a comeback in the 2010s, with celebrities like Justin Bieber, Liam Payne, Ross Lynch, Zac Efron and more bringing back the fashion trend. Sagging in the 1990s usually focused on baggy trousers with plaid boxers, but in the 2010s sagging has become popular with skinny jeans and branded boxer-briefs.

The style was popularized by skaters and hip-hop artists in the 1990s. It later became a symbol of freedom and cultural awareness among some youths or a symbol of their rejection of the values of mainstream society.

It is often claimed the style originated from the United States prison system where belts are sometimes prohibited and there can be a lack of appropriately sized clothing

During the 2000s, many North American local governments, school systems, transit agencies, and even airlines passed laws and regulations against the practice of wearing sagging pants, although no state or federal laws have been enacted banning the practice. US presidential candidate Barack Obama, speaking just before the 2008 US Presidential Election, appeared on MTV and said that laws banning the practice of wearing low-slung pants that expose one’s underwear were “a waste of time … Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on. Some people might not want to see your underwear. I’m one of them.”

(Don’t be crude, dude.)

Sports note. In a Facebook posting, Pittsburgh resident Ann Burlingham was concerned that the prohibition in #2 was aimed at the Pittsburgh NHL team the Penguins. But once you realize that the establishment in #2 is in New Orleans (a city that doesn’t have a NHL team and isn’t particularly devoted to ice hockey), you can see that sports rivalry is an unlikely source of the penguin ban at Loretta’s.

It’s all a matter of context. Ya gotta know the territory.

Contextual semantics. In a related vein: searching electronically on “NO PENGUINS” led me almost immediately to things like:

True or false? There are no penguins in Alaska.

Of course, the “right” answer is True, and sites go on to explain that penguins are Antarctic creatures, not Arctic ones, and that anyway, penguins wouldn’t survive in Alaska because bears would eat them there. But there’s a trickiness to the question (and its expected answer).

In fact, it seems to be something of a historical accident that at the moment there are not known to be any penguins in Alaska — the accident being that the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage has exotic creatures like tigers and Bactrian camels, but no penguins. To see the problem, try these questions on for size:

True or false? There are no penguins in San Francisco.

True or false? There are no snakes in Ireland.

Oh dear, it turns out to turn on what the meaning of are is. Everything depends on what question is being asked in context.

There are certainly penguins in San Francisco. Two colonies of them, in fact: on Penguin Island at the San Francisco Zoo; and in the Steinhart Aquarium of the California Academy of Sciences. And there are certainly snakes in Ireland: the Dublin Zoo has some large and dramatic pythons, in particular.

Ok, the penguins are in San Francisco, but not of it; and similarly for the pythons in Dublin. There are no naturally occurring penguins in San Francisco, no wild penguins in San Francisco; and similarly for snakes in Ireland. And that’s what the true-or-false questions are asking about; that’s what forms of the verb BE convey in the quiz-question context. Even if your kid has viewed a memorable Burmese python at the Dublin Zoo, if they get the true/false question on a quiz in school, the only “right” answer to it is True; there are no snakes in Ireland.

It gets worse. Suppose the quiz question is:

True or false? There are no penguins in Arnold’s house in Palo Alto.

Well, now, the “right” answer is False; Arnold’s house has penguins all over the place. Granted, they aren’t literal penguins, capable of swimming like bullets through icy waters in search of fish to eat, but are instead various kinds of penguin-simulacra (so that you could have a potentially explosive penguin on top of your telly) or penguin-representations (drawings, for example).

So now it depends on what the noun PENGUIN means. Any noun denoting a concrete object can also be used to denote a simulacrum or representation of that object. In some contexts (as in a discussion of the contents of my house), the concrete-object avian understanding of PENGUIN will obviously be out of the question, so if you assume we are talking cooperatively, you’ll look for an alternative understanding of PENGUIN that makes the noun relevant in the context, and that will bring you to the simulacum/representation understanding. And the “right” answer, False.

There’s more, of course. There are no Penguins in Arnold’s house in Palo Alto (with Penguin ‘pro hockey player for the Pittsburgh team’) is True; and There is no penguin in Arnold’s house in Palo Alto (with penguin ‘penguin meat’) is also True. And so on. But these understandings require heavy doses of special context.

It remains that There are no penguins in San Francisco posed in a quiz is True; but the same sentence advanced as a claim about the contents of the city is False; and There are no penguins in Arnold’s house in Palo Alto is also False. Context, context.

4 Responses to “NO PENGUINS”

  1. Anna M. Thornton Says:

    I LOVED this piece. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such pieces.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Ordinarily I’m wary of comments that are merely evaluations, especially positive ones; they are often nothing but lures to commercial sites, and I suppress dozens of such spam comments every day. But this one comes from a distinguished linguistic morphologist, the Professor of Linguistics at the University of L’Aquila, the public research university in the Abruzzo region of Italy (and an academic acquaintance of mine of long standing).

      And her good words are especially gratifying to me at this time, when my life tends to be consumed by medical crises and despair, so that I’ve tried to manage one NoDY — Not Dead Yet! — posting a day, and occasionally fail even at that.

  2. [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky notes a bizarre no-penguins sign for sale on […]

  3. Wesley Sandel Says:

    I grew up in and around New Orleans and pralines were never even spoken of or served anywhere except tourist shops in the Quarter. And they were always stale.

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