Where is your bathroom?

A comic gem from the very first episode (“Give Me a Ring Sometime”) of the American tv show Cheers (S1 E1 9/30/82).  An exchange (call it the D&C exchange) between the character Diane — at this point, merely a patron sitting in the bar Cheers — and Coach, the bartender on duty:

Diane to Coach: Excuse me. Where is your bathroom?

Coach in response : Uh, next to my bedroom.

The character Coach  turns out to be empathetic and warm-hearted, but regrettably slow and defective at calculating people’s intentions in speaking as they do. In this brief exchange with Diane, Coach is faced with several linked tasks in understanding deictic elements: the locative deixis in where, the person deixis in your.

Deictic expressions have no fixed meaning, but get their meaning from the context they’re in. And that fact means that if you misjudge what context is relevant to the conversation you’re in, they can be badly deployed or incorrectly interpreted.

For example, with locative (and temporal) deixis, it’s easy to misjudge the appropriate scale. If I call the Palo Alto police to report gunshots, and the dispatcher asks me, “Where are you?”, the answer “At my desk” is at too fine a scale for the purposes of the exchange, while the answer “In northern California” is at too broad a scale. (Both answers might be true, but neither is helpful.)

Things are more complicated in the D&C exchange: there, how where is understood interacts with how your (directed by Diane to Coach) is interpreted.

First, easy, thing: you and your are ambiguous between sg. and pl. reference — referring to a single addressee vs. to more than one addressee or to a collection including the addressee and one or more people associated with the addressee (speaking, for example, to the addressee, but also to absent members of their family, work group, or whatever).

Second, harder, thing. Background here from my 12/8/06 LLog posting “Plural, mass, collective”:

Still another way [beyond PL nouns (like shrubs) and one type of M[ass] noun (like shrubbery)] in which a noun can “mean more than one” can be seen in the C[ount] noun GROUP. This lexical item has perfectly ordinary SG and PL forms, group and groups, with unremarkable meanings.  But the lexical item itself denotes a collectivity, in the sense that its referent has individuals as members or parts. This is the sense in which [a cited source] saw “troop” (and “bunch”) as “plural”.
The standard technical term here is “collective” (vs. “non-collective”) noun

Now we’re almost home in understanding Diane’s use of your in your bathroom in the D&C exchange. Your here (also you in Do you have clean restrooms?) is a personal pronoun vaguely reminiscent of a collective noun, referring, sort of, to the bar and its staff as a collectivity.

More precisely, Diane’s Where is your bathroom?  is roughly paraphrased as Where is your bar’s bathroom?; the reference to Coach is a kind of short version of a reference to Coach’s bar, the one he works in. And that relationship, between Coach and the bar he works in, is association, one of the types of metonymy.

That analysis makes the whole thing sound exotic and complex, but such metonymies are very common and unremarkable. Nevertheless, the straightforwardly referential use of your (roughly ‘belonging to you, the addressee’) is even simpler; and this is the understanding Coach gets of Diane’s question, so he tells here where his own bathroom is — disregarding entirely why Diane is asking the question in the context of their interaction in the bar.

Note. As usual, my discussion of matters of semantics is abbreviated and unsophisticated. I am not a semanticist, and I am now cut off from access to most sources of relevant information, so my metonymy analysis here might just be a pale echo of well-known treatments in the technical literature.

One Response to “Where is your bathroom?”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Given the way comedy works, I would not be surprised to find earlier occurrences of Coach’s joke or variants of it or antecedents to it.

Leave a Reply to arnold zwicky Cancel reply


%d bloggers like this: