Archive for the ‘Ambiguity’ Category

Getting validated

April 24, 2021

A Nathan Pyle (of Strange Planet) cartoon passed on by Jeff Shaumeyer on Facebook yesterday:


(#1) JS: This is my reaction every time I use my credit card. I crave the validation.

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Baxter on language

April 22, 2021

Three more cartoons from the Glen Baxter collection Almost Completely Baxter, all having to do with language in one way or another: the study of vowels as religious observance in the abbey of the fabled town of Brocklehampton; the tragedy of empty speech balloons; and smoke signals pressed into service to spread higher literary culture.

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The columnist

April 15, 2021

Today’s Zippy strip, with an unconventional sense of columnist:

(#1)

Not someone who writes a column for publication, but a collector of columns, the architectural features — like a philatelist, but with pillars.

But then the suffix –ist is extraordinarily multifunctional.

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gay therapy

April 13, 2021

An ad in my Facebook feed for a Gay Therapy Center, which briefly gave me pause because of an ambiguity in the Adj + N composite gay therapy. Now, Adj + N composites, like N + N compounds, are notoriously open to multiple understandings, even if we restrict ourselves to general patterns for the semantic relationship between the two parts. In this case, I had a moment of deep unease that gay therapy was to be understood as a treatment composite, parallel to treatment compounds: pain therapy, flu therapy, cancer therapy, etc. ‘therapy to treat condition or disorder X’. Thus viewing homosexuality as a disorder, which would make gay therapy here a synonym of the now-conventional label conversion therapy, for a scheme that proposes to treat homosexuality and cure it.

But, whew, no. The Gay Therapy Center in San Francisco (with a satellite center in Los Angeles) offers “LGBTQ therapy to help LGBTQ people love themselves and each other” — with the composite gay therapy understood as ‘therapy for gay people, to help / benefit gay people’. Indeed, the Facebook ad offered brief videos showing male couples embracing affectionately (other ads have female couples as well). A still from one of these:

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smouldering

April 11, 2021

Recently received: Almost Completely Baxter: New and Selected Blurtings (New York Review Comics, 2016), a collection of absurdist cartoons by the artist Glen Baxter. There will be more drawings from the volume; today, one (p. 30) about smouldering:

(#1)

From NOAD on the verb smolder / smoulder:

[no object] [a] burn slowly with smoke but no flame: the bonfire still smoldered, the smoke drifting over the paddock. [b] show or feel barely suppressed anger, hatred, or another powerful emotion [AZ: notably including sexual desire and sexual invitation]: Anna smoldered with indignation | (as adjective smoldering): he met her smoldering eyes. …

Clearly, #1 illustrates sense a, but some might see the burning as also an eruption of a powerful emotion (sense b) — and, since Hank is a handsome young man putting on this display for an assortment of cowboys, rough older men, you might see that emotion as sexual (and some commenters on the cartoon have seen it as camp humor).

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The elephant and plum

April 9, 2021

Not Frog and Peach, but Elephant and Plum, in a kid joke as told by Ruthie in the One Big Happy strip from 2/22 (in my comics feed on 3/21):

(#1)

Four things: kid jokes, of which the Elephant and Plum variant above is a particular clever example; the saying about elephants on which it depends; elephant jokes, of which the joke above is not the classic Elephant and Plum exemplar; and the ambiguity of “When did you laugh at it?”, which turns on the defining property of deictic elements like the interrogative when.

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Ripped from the headlines

April 3, 2021

Well, actually, the headline — from CNN Politics, “Gaetz showed nude photos of women he said he’d slept with to lawmakers, sources tell CNN” by Jeremy Herb, Lauren Fox and Ryan Nobles yesterday — isn’t problematic, but very early in the body of the story, we get this:


(hat tips to Mike Pope and Michael Covarrubias on Facebook)

Which is.

I was (actually) shocked at the idea that congressman Matt Gaetz (R of FL) — admittedly, an extraordinarily arrogant bully with the contempt for ordinary people and customary social conventions so often displayed by children of privilege — would have sex with women on the floor of the US House of Representatives. Then I saw the ambiguity in modifier attachment and realized that what was alleged was merely deeply boorish behavior: passing around, wink wink nod nod, naked photos and videos of his sexual conquests to other legislators and their staffs.

Now, about that modifier attachment…

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Tom Stoppard speaks to the meat

March 24, 2021

In the New Yorker, “Tom Stoppard’s Charmed and Haunted Life: A new biography enables us to see beneath the intellectual dazzle of the playwright’s work” by Anthony Lane, in the print edition of 3/1/21:

In 2007, the playwright Tom Stoppard went to Moscow. He was there to watch over a production of his trilogy — “Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Salvage,” collectively known as “The Coast of Utopia.” The trilogy had opened in London in 2002, and transferred to Lincoln Center in 2006. Now, in a sense, it was coming home. The majority of the characters, though exiled, are from Russia (the most notable exception being a German guy named Karl Marx), and, for the first time, they would be talking in Russian, in a translation of Stoppard’s text. Ever courteous, he wanted to be present, during rehearsals, to offer notes of encouragement and advice. These were delivered through an interpreter, since Stoppard speaks no Russian. One day, at lunch, slices of an anonymous meat were produced, and Stoppard asked what it was. “That is,” somebody said, seeking the correct English word, “language.”

Since this is a blog mostly about language, you have no doubt seen where that answer came from.

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Treading down the thorny path

March 16, 2021

Two evergreen topics in grammar and usage: so-called “split infinitives”, where some usage critics have insisted that they must always be avoided, however unnatural the results of this avoidance are; and modifier attachment, where jokes are often made about one of the potential attachments, however preposterous the interpretation associated with this attachment is.

The two topics are connected through their unthinking devotion to dogmas of grammatical correctness: avoid split infinitives, avoid potential ambiguity. A devotion that leads adherents down the thorny path of usage rectitude to using unnatural syntax and entertaining preposterous interpretations.

But first, the thorny path. The (tough) counterpart to the (easy) primrose path.

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Smell the roses in a field

February 26, 2021

Two cartoons in my comics feed on 2/25 (otherwise known as Yay! Pfizer1 Day! at my house) on language play: a Wayno/Piraro Bizarro playing on formulaic language (the metaphorical idiom / cliché stop and smell the roses), and a Piccolo/Price Rhymes With Orange with a play on the ambiguity of field.

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