Annals of ambiguity: I feel like making it rough for Schrödinger

Playing with ambiguity:

— a One Big Happy cartoon with: I feel like a tuna fish sandwich

— a domestic exchange about: I will make a dessert of my youth

— a Pearls Before Swine cartoon with: Tell me roughly

— a photograph, labeled Schrödinger’s Dumpster, of a dumpster with the signage: EMPTY WHEN FULL

The example data; then some comments on ambiguity as a characteristic of language.

I feel like a tunafish sandwich. The One Big Happy strip from 12/5/19 (appearing more recently in my comics feed):


We’ve been here before, sort of, on this blog. From my 2/19/12 posting “I feel like sushi”, about a Rhymes With Orange strip:


Among the many uses of the verb feel is is the one OED2 glosses as:

to feel like (doing something): to have an inclination for

with the usage note “(? orig. U.S.; now common)” and the usage label “colloq. or vulgar” (I wouldn’t say that vulgar is appropriate now, even if it was in 1989, but colloquial is about right). In the cartoon, this sense competes with a sense in which the subject of the verb is the source of a touch perception (with the experiencer of this perception optionally expressed by a PP in to).

OED2’s gloss for the second sense:

Used (like tastesmell) in quasi-passive sense with complement: To be felt as having a specified quality; to produce a certain impression on the senses (esp. that of touch) or the sensibilities; to seem.

So: something feels rough, like sandpaper, as if it was sanded (to me).

Call the activity idiom involving feel, activity feel like.

The second sense of feel above is used here with the P like, so call this feel like combination prepositional feel like: the P functions semantically like a conjunction: feel like sushi ‘feel the way sushi feels’.

But I feel the way sushi feels is itself ambiguous, between the referent of sushi (also of the higher subject I) serving in the participant role Source (of a sensation — sushi feels slippery and fishy, somewhat meaty and chewy; if I feel like sushi, so do I) ; and the referent of sushi (also of I) in the participant role Experiencer (of a sensation — sushi feels that it has been prepared to be eaten by diners; if I feel like sushi, I feel similarly threatened). Source P feel like versus Experiencer P feel like.

The ambiguity in #2 is between activity feel like and Source P feel like; in  #1 (with tuna on toast rather than sushi), between activity feel like and Experiencer P feel like.

Then in my 2/24/15 posting “Ode to Almond Joy”, on the candy jingle “Sometimes you feel like a nut / Sometimes you don’t”, turning on the ambiguity of feel + like (in combination with the ambiguity of nut (the foodstuff vs. ‘wild and crazy guy’): activity feel like plus foodstuff nut giving the interpretation ‘have an inclination to have (that is, eat) a nut’; versus yet another sense of feel, roughly ‘believe’, specifically ‘believe to be’,  plus crazy/eccentric person nut, giving an interpretation along the lines of ‘believe to be like a nutty person’.

(For completeness, I note still other prepositional feel like idioms: positive-affect feel like a million bucks ‘feel wonderful’, negative-affect feel like shit / crap / hell ‘feel terrible’.)

I will make a dessert of my youth. From a 12/21/19 Facebook posting reporting on an household exchange between Chris Waigl and her wife Melinda Shore:

Chris: I will make a dessert of my youth.
Melinda: You will take your youth and turn it into a dessert?

First, on the food, Dr. Oetker Milchkaffee. From Wikipedia:

Dr. Oetker is a German multinational company that produces baking powder, cake mixes, frozen pizza, pudding, cake decoration, cornflakes, and various other products.

The company is a wholly owned branch of the Oetker Group, headquartered in Bielefeld.

(#3) ParadiesCreme ‘Paradise Cream, Cream of Paradise’

A dried dessert powder for a heavenly dessert cream flavor (add chilled milk, whisk for 3 minutes, and serve) — schmeckt locker-leicht und cremig ‘tastes airy-light and creamy’

(Comes in various flavors: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, nougat, caramel, and more)

Then, the ambiguity centered on the verb make: make a dessert of my youth. Part of the story is an ambiguity in argument structures, famously exploited in jokes:

Make me a sandwich / Poof, you’re a sandwich

My mother made me a homosexual / If I paid her a hundred dollars, would she make one for me too?

Skimming over most of the details, we’re looking at VPs of the form:

make NP1 NP2

understood as either of:

make NP2 for NP1 (roughly, benefactive)

make NP1 into NP2 (roughly, transformative)

But wait, there’s more. In addition to this argument structure ambiguity, there’s a structural ambiguity, with the PP of my youth parsed either as a postnominal modifier in the NP a dessert of my youth, or as an argument (an oblique object) of the verb make.

Tell me roughly. Then, from Facebook on 12/21/19, from Mike Pope, this Pearls Before Swine cartoon of 12/20:


Tell me roughly, elliptical for ‘Tell me roughly how much we pay’.

Again, a structural ambiguity and a lexical ambiguity work together. The adverb roughly functions either as a VP adverbial or as a degree adverbial (an approximative) modifying how much (we pay).

The VP adverbial is the –ly counterpart to the adjective rough in NOAD‘s sense 2a:

adj. rough: … 2 [a] (of a person or their behavior) not gentle; violent or boisterous: strollers should be capable of withstanding rough treatment.

The degree adverbial is the –ly counterpart to the adjective rough in NOAD‘s sense 3d:

adj. rough: … 3[a] not finished tidily or decoratively; plain and basic: the customers sat at rough wooden tables. [b] put together without the proper materials or skill; makeshift: he had one arm in a rough sling. [c]lacking sophistication or refinement: she took care of him in her rough, kindly way. [d] not worked out or correct in every detail: he had a rough draft of his new novel.

Similarly, in AHD5 sense 6:

Not perfected, completed, or fully detailed: a rough drawing; rough carpentry.

(Neither quite gets at the further development to ‘inexact, approximate’, as in a rough estimate, but that’s not directly relevant to the Pearls ambiguity.)

EMPTY WHEN FULL. Another ambiguity passed around on Facebook back in December, an ambiguity in labeling / signage (in part a result of the abbreviated form of signs) that has come to be known as:


(apparently suggesting that the dumpster is somehow simultaneously empty and full, like Schrödinger’s cat, which is somehow simultaneousy alive and dead)

Again, a constructional and lexical ambiguity working hand in hand: empty as a verb (the intended reading), in an imperative sentence (parallel to the label or sign USE AS NEEDED); vs. empty as an adjective (the Schrödinger reading), in a declarative sentence (parallel to the label or sign SLIPPERY WHEN WET).

Schrödinger might be on its way to serving as a cartoon meme. Three examples:

on 3/26/15 in “The cat at the vet’s”, with Benjamin Schwartz’s “Schrödinger’s cat at the vet’s”

— in Mark Liberman’s 5/21/17 Language Log posting “Schrödinger’s pundit”: an SMBC, with a pundit both opposing and favoring a bill

on 6/27/19 in “The Desert Island Reaper”: #10 the Schwartz cartoon

Why is ambiguity seen as a defect? Speakers of English are inclined to view examples like the ones above as entertaining demonstrations of unfortunate defects in the language: a properly designed language wouldn’t allow for any such thing. (Well, they can’t know this, but every language in the world appears to be jam-packed with just such ambiguities, so there obviously must be something deeper going on.)

Typical despondent views of ambiguity in fact turn on a piece of language ideology that is most vibrantly expressed in European Rationalist thought, in particular in the dream of a perfect language, in which you say exacty what you mean, no more and no less.

In my 9/27/18 posting “Mike Lynch”. I wrote that

[Peter Mark] Roget’s obsessive [Thesaurus] project … stood squarely in two related intellectual traditions: the devising of (universal) “philosophical languages” in the 17th century (George Dalgarno, John Wilkins, Gottfried Leibniz); and then the projects of the Enlightenment in the 18th, especially the French Encyclopédie, the great catalogue of all the things in the world.

(So: not only a perfect language, but a complete one, capable of expressing all ideas.)

The desire for a perfect language seems inarguable to many people these days, accustomed as we have become to the metaphorical usage of the word language for systems of symbols and rules for writing computer programs or algorithms. But the dream of a perfect language was of a sign system people could use in speaking and writing.

The nature of a perfect language. In brief, these components:

— perfect morphosyntax: one form / one meaning: neither ambiguity (one form, several alternative meanings) nor variability (one meaning, several alternative forms)

— perfect exponence: no redundancy (more than one co-occurring exponent of some meaning; so, among other things, no agreement) or omission (missing exponents for some meaning: no ellipsis, truncation, etc.) or inexplicitness (no abbreviation, indirection, allusion, etc.); Omit Needless Words (ONW), Include All Necessary Words (IANW)

— perfect lexicon: no lexical gaps, in particular neither lexical underdifferentiation (English cousin, no separate simple words for ‘female cousin’ and ‘male cousin’) nor lexical overdifferentiation (English niece and nephew, no simple word for the two of them taken together)

But but but. Language is not only a system of signs but also a system of sociocultural practice. These two aspects of language are indissoluble.

Most of the “defects” of ordinary language above — ambiguity, variability, redundancy, omission, inexplicitness — can be seen as devices serving the purposes of language in its sociocultural context: signaling shared information or belief, aspects of surrounding text, participants’ goals or intentions in engaging in the exchange, participants’ presentations of themselves in the interaction, and more.

Ambiguity, in particular, allows for compactness of expressions –“perfect” languages require astounding amounts of text to convey messages adequately — while using participants’ abilities to exploit background knowledge and the richness of context to winkle out each other’s intentions. They don’t do this perfectly, of course, but then they don’t have to. They only have to be good enough most of the time.

They are human systems for human uses.

(And then since there’s a considerable amount of randomness in linguistic history, some stuff just is, without a deeper meaning. For instance, the lexical overdifferentiation and underdifferentiation examples above.)



3 Responses to “Annals of ambiguity: I feel like making it rough for Schrödinger”

  1. Mike McManus Says:

    Reminds me of the passage in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, aboard a spaceship about to jump into hyperspace:
    “It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”
    “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
    “Ask a glass of water.”

    Plus the Schrödinger joke I remember from Usenet ages ago: “Erwin, what have you done with the cat? It looks half-dead. – Frau Schrödinger”

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    My mother made me a homosexual / If I paid her a hundred dollars, would she make one for me too?

    The version of this that I remember seeing (as a graffito in a restroom stall, I think) had “If I sent her the yarn”, which I find quite delightful.

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