Archive for the ‘Ambiguity’ Category

They are revolting

March 22, 2017

On ADS-L on the 20th, Quote Investigator Garson O’Toole wrote:

This post was made in response to [Fred Shapiro’s] request for famous quotes from comic strips. This topic is complicated enough that I think a separate discussion thread will be helpful.

The double-meaning of the phrase “The peasants are revolting” was featured in the comic strip “The Wizard of Id”. Here is a [11/8/64] piece in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” that mentioned the joke within an introduction to the comic before its debut in syndication.


The ambiguity became closely associated with The Wizard of Id, as in the collection in #1, but of course it didn’t originate there. In Garson’s ADS-L posting, his focus was on antedating the joke — antedating is a preoccupation of the hounds of ADS-L — but my interest here is on other things: the comic strip itself and some entertaining examples of the joke, regardless of when they appeared.


No whey in hell

March 6, 2017

On Pinterest this morning, along with a bunch of Gary Larson cartoons, this cartoon by Dan Thompson from some time ago:


Ingredients: “Little Miss Muffet”; homophony (or near-homophony) of whey and way; the complex AmE idiom no way in hell. Bonus: Anne Taintor.


On the N + N compound watch

March 6, 2017

Passed on by Ken Callicott, presumably from his browsing in supermarkets:

As I note from time to time, N + N compounds (like infant water) are always subject to multiple interpretations, even if we stick to interpretations that involve only the relatively small set of canonical semantic relations between the parts. Usually knowledge about the world and about the context in which a compound is used is sufficient to make one interpretation by far the most likely one. But that doesn’t stop  mischievous people from seeking out possible but unlikely interpretations and making antic hay out of them. (And cartoons often show henighted people fixing on possible but unlikely interpretations.)


Adjunct or argument?

March 2, 2017

The most recent One Big Happy:

Joe’s version of Job 3:1 is the one I recall:

Job cursed the day he was born.

and it suffers from an ambiguity, between the day he was born as an argument (the direct object of cursed) and as an adjunct, or modifier (a time adverbial, in fact a bare NP adverbial, an alternative to the PP adverbial on the day he was born). The intended reading of Job 3:1 is the argument reading, but Joe got the adjunct reading.


They don’t get it

February 18, 2017

Short, very common words tend to have a great many senses — more exactly, in such cases there tend to be a great many homophonous lexical items from the same historical source (thanks to semantic shifts and syntactic changes). So, in its main entry for the verb get, NOAD2 has 32 subentries (and then there are lots of idiomatic phrases with get and phrasal verbs with get). And we, um, get things like this scene in a recent One Big Happy:



Ruthie on language patrol

February 8, 2017

Two recent One Big Happy strips in which Ruthie grapples with language and its uses:



Pretty Rico and telephonic conventions. #1 is the more complex strip. The easy part is Ruthie’s misinterpretation of Puerto Rico as pretty Rico — another case where she reinterprets an unfamiliar expression in terms familiar to her. The tricky part is where the caller asks, “Is this a child?”, using demonstrative this on the telephone to refer to the recipient of the call: in the telephonic context (and not generally otherwise), “Is this a child?” conveys ‘Are you a child?’

Ruthie seems not to have picked up this piece of conversational convention, but she has learned a related convention, of identifying oneself on the phone (in the U.S. at least) by the formula This is X (conveying ‘I am X’). Armed with this knowledge, she takes the question Is this X? to be just the interrogative version of This is X, thus asking whether the caller is X: she takes “Is this a child?” to be asking ‘Am I a child?’

So clever. And so wrong.

Breaking news. #2, in contrast, turns on a relatively straightforward ambiguity, in the verb break. Two senses from NOAD2:

[state-change sense] separate or cause to separate into pieces as a result of a blow, shock, or strain

[hot-news sense] (of news or a scandal) suddenly become public [especially in the formula breaking news ‘information that has just now become public’, with breaking as a PRP verb form modifying news]

What Ruthie is announcing is indeed brèaking néws in the hot-news sense, but what she intends to be announcing is bréaking nèws (with the N + N compound breaking news ‘news about breaking’, with state-change break).

Two numerical ambiguities

February 6, 2017

Two recent cases of ambiguities in numerical expressions: one on monetary value, one on identification numbers.


fudge II

February 1, 2017

A bonus to my fudge posting yesterday: an outrageous posting (playing on the ambiguity between the food and the excrement nouns fudge) on the crowdfunding / fund sourcing site Indiego (not, alas, dated, so far as I can tell):

Help Us Put Fudge in Uranus! Join us in a campaign to open the Uranus Fudge Factory and General Store on Historic Route 66: You will be part of creating the most outrageous (and the most fun) Candy Factory and Retail Store in the country.

The site claims to be seeking support both for the factory and store and for the expense of incorporating a town of Uranus MO:


A literally dirty joke, turning on the ambiguity of fudge in combination with a play on the planet name Uranus (accented on the middle syllable) vs. the phrase your anus (your asshole, where the shit comes from).


It’s a miracle!

January 13, 2017

… and a dirty joke. A ¡Toma Guasa! cartoon from October 2015:


No one’s misspelled HALLOWEEN; the O is right there, it’s just that it’s an asshole.



January 4, 2017

(Obviously, sexual content, so not to everyone’s taste.)

On AZBlogX yesterday, in “Johnny Rapid at the jizz ball”:

It started with a device for simulating ejaculation in making porn movies, called a jizz ball (or jizz-ball [or jizzball]) in an episode of (the American) Queer as Fuck (in which the character Emmett becomes an on-line pornstar). That led to jizz ball ‘orgy’, especially a gang scene with one person as focus (a scene I’m familiar with in an all-male context). And specifically to a scene from the 2012 video Jizz Orgy: Winning Ball (from in which Johnny Rapid takes on four members of a soccer team (played by Blaze, Brad Foxx, Leo Forte, and Rafael Alencar). Johnny has a jizz ball!

(with four shots of Johnny Rapid in action).