Please don’t eat the flooring

Jeremy Nguyen in the 7/20/20 New Yorker:


(#1) “This is the precise reason I didn’t want bamboo flooring.”

Everybody knows that pandas eat bamboo, but what they eat is bamboo-bamboo, the shoots (and sometimes leaves and stems) of several bamboo species, not items made from the stems or fibers of the plant — furniture, other household furnishings, fabrics, and, yes, flooring.

Yes, the joke turns on a systematic metonymy, an ambiguity between reference to a plant and reference to items created from parts of that plant.

So: pandas and bamboo and metonymy too.

Pandas eat bamboo. From Smithsonian Magazine, “Bamboo Is Basically ‘Fake Meat’ for Giant Pandas: A new study shows the bears have a nutritional profile that looks more like that of wolves and cats rather than herbivores” by Jason Daley on 5/3/19:


(#2) Giant panda feeding on bamboo shoots (photo: Fuwen Wei for Smithsonian Magazine)

Giant pandas [Ailuropoda melanoleuca] are famous for being militant vegetarians. They stick to an almost exclusive bamboo diet, devouring the stalky grass for 12 to 14 hours a day. However, the panda is in the taxonomic clade Carnivora, and its gut is more similar to that of a carnivore than an herbivore, making the animal an evolutionary head-scratcher.

Now, a new study published in journal Current Biology helps make sense of the black and white animal’s strange diet. All that bamboo, it turns out, is high in protein and low in carbs and more similar to a meat-based diet than, say, a grass-eating cow’s menu.

To understand the nutritional composition of the panda’s diet, an international team used tracking collars to follow pandas in China’s Foping National Nature Reserve to record the type of bamboo they eat. Susan Milius at Science News reports that for eight months of the year, the bears gnawed on a lowland bamboo species, eating primarily the high-protein new shoots when they were available. Those shoots are 32 percent protein, compared to just 19 percent in bamboo leaves. In the summer months, the pandas migrated to higher altitudes, eating protein-rich shoots of a different species with a similar nutritional makeup.

… About 50 percent of a panda’s energy comes from protein, similar to the energy profile of cats or wolves. Other herbivorous mammals typically only get 20 percent of their energy from protein.

The ambiguity in bamboo. From NOAD:

noun bamboo: [a] a giant woody grass that grows chiefly in the tropics, where it is widely cultivated. Bambusa and other genera, family Gramineae [b] the hollow jointed stem of the bamboo plant, used as a cane or to make furniture and implements: [as modifier]:  a bamboo serving tray.

The ambiguity is scarcely confined to this one noun, but is quite systematic: nouns referring to a plant can also refer to the characteristic products of that plant: from the thyme plant, the herb thyme; from the mahogany tree , the wood mahogany. This is systematic metonymy (based on association rather than similarity).

More below. But first, the flooring.

Bamboo under our feet. From The Spruce site: “Bamboo Flooring Review: Pros and Cons: Is Bamboo Flooring Right for You?” by Joseph Lewitin, updated 7/8/20:


(#3) Bamboo flooring

As a flooring material, bamboo has many of the same benefits and drawbacks of hardwood flooring, Like wood flooring, bamboo is an attractive natural material that generally adds real estate value to a home. While the bamboo plant is a type of grass, not a tree, bamboo flooring behaves much like wood flooring — it can even be refinished in the same way. Bamboo is every bit as hard as most hardwoods and is slightly more water-resistant. But like wood, bamboo can be scratched, and it is prone to cracking in conditions where humidity levels swing dramatically.

Bamboo will be of most appeal to consumers interested in using natural, renewable resources. Unlike trees, which require at least 20 years to mature, a bamboo stalk can be repeatedly harvested every five or six years.

The bamboo plant is, of course, famously, fabulously, quick-growing and invasive. I live in fear that the golden bamboo that has taken hold across the street from me, behind the downtown Palo Alto library, will manage to send lateral roots under the street and appear, disastrously, in my patio.

Systematic metonymy. Recently on this blog, on an ambiguity very similar to the plant vs. product metonymy in bamboo:

on 7/15/20 in “At the Paleo Cafe”

In general, out of context, there’s a systematic (metonymy-based) ambiguity, for a large class of lexical items, which can refer to edible foodstuffs [filet mignon the cut of beef] or to cooked preparations of them [filet mignon the menu item]. As with other such ambiguities — for example, between reference to some concrete object or to a simulacrum of it — we largely negotiate these semantic spaces without appreciating the complexities in them.

We mostly do this so automatically that we don’t even realize that there is an ambiguity there — until we come across something like the Nguyen cartoon in #1. Even so, we’re inclined to believe that these systematic metonymies are so natural that they’re universal. But no.

From my LLog posting on 10/27/08 “Zero relationships”:

What this means is that, however “natural”, intuitive, and obvious some of these conversions might seem to you, they are things you’ve LEARNED about the use of the language, and there is no guarantee that other languages will have the same conventions.

And in fact they do not. Jerry Sadock reports to me that conventionalized metonymies are virtually absent in Greenlandic Eskimo (and that creative metonymy is conversationally problematic), and a quick survey even of familiar European languages will show that some of them lack some of the conventions that English speakers find so natural (while having others that are initially strange to us). I’m not competent to survey such facts (though I’ve taken part in entertaining discussions with various multilingual linguists about them)

One way in which a language could lack systematic metonymic ambiguities of certain types is by requiring nouns to occur with disambiguating  noun classifiers: say, for the noun filet mignon, requiring it to appear either as filet mignon MEAT (with the meat classifier) or filet mignon FOOD (with the food classifier).

From my back files, two other systematic metonymies (from a number) that seem especially striking to me:

on 11/11/09 in “Short shot #19: word/thing metonymy”: The third name on that list died.

on 9/27/11 in “Annals of metonymy”: examples referring to an event via a reference to the place where the event happened (Where were you when the World Trade Center happened?)

This merely scratches the metonymic surface. The standard reference is Geoffrey Nunberg’s 1995 “Transfers of meaning” in the Journal of Semantics 12 (2): 109–132. (PDF here) — but there’s considerable ensuing discussion in the semantics literature.

2 Responses to “Please don’t eat the flooring”

  1. Ellen Kaisse Says:

    Both Modern Greek and Spanish have different affixes depending on whether something is a tree or the fruit of a tree. (This is probably covered in one of your earlier postings or references). So an apple (tree) and an apple (fruit of apple tree) would be in different genders or declensions. Which makes me wonder if it’s true of their parents, Latin and Ancient Greek, and if it is, if it’s true of their distant parent, Indo-European. No doubt this could be pretty easily checked in Benveniste’s book or somewhere like that, but hey, it’s hot out.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, the distinction made *explicit* by derivational morphology in this case — Fr. prune vs. prunier, etc. — is indeed covered in earlier postings. In fact, there are several devices for making the distinctions explicit, including noun compounding (Engl. plum fruit vs. plum tree). But the point is not that disambiguation is impossible (that’s just spectacularly false), but that there are large-scale systematic ambiguities in which the meaning distinctions are entirely *implicit* (and have to be differentiated in language use by pragmatic reasoning of various sorts). (And that these systematic ambiguities are extraordinarily common in everyday language use.)

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