Archive for the ‘Ambiguity’ Category

James and the knock-knock joke

November 27, 2023

One Big Happy strip, recently in my comics feed:

(#1) James (mis-)takes Ruthie’s meta-commentary — her talk about what’s going on in her interaction with James — to be part of that interaction, to be her next move in the routine of the knock-knock joke, and shows that he understands that routine, by producing the appropriate next move in the routine

James might be a dirty-faced urchin, but he knows his joke routines. And, in the last panel, is probably wondering how on earth Ruthie’s going to make a pun out of jeezy-peezy-I-forgot-the-joke.

So: mastering the routine of the knock-knock-joke is one thing, but then the routine incorporates another type of joke, the pun joke, which has its own requirements. In addition, the knock-knock joke requires not just any pun, but a (phonologically) imperfect pun, the more distant the better, so that its punch line will have genuine surprise value.


Two stock similes

November 20, 2023

Briefly noted, this Leigh Rubin cartoon passed on to me by Susan Fischer on Facebook today:

To understand this, you need to recognize a bull and a young goat

Two stock expressions, both of them similes, lie behind the two images of creatures entering retail establishments: like a bull in a china shop, like a kid in a candy store. The two ideas can appear as an explicit comparison, in a simile with like; or in a metaphor, with the comparison implicit: you are a (veritable) bull in a china shop; they were (proverbial) kids in a candy store.



September 26, 2023

Received in e-mail this morning, from Dave Sayers on the Variationist mailing list:

We are delighted to announce the next in the 2023-24 series of online guest seminars here in the English section at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland — open to all!

On Tues 10 Oct at 11:00 East European Summer Time Mie Hiramoto (National University of Singapore) and Wes Robertson (Macquarie University, Australia) will give a talk titled ‘Framing masculinity and cultural norms: A case study of male VIO hair removal in Japan’.

That’s it. I was baffled by VIO hair removal; it has two possible parsings, and some large number of possible interpretations. And I was baffled by what looked like an unfamiliar initialism, VIO. Masculinity and cultural norms being one of my areas of interest within the G&S (gender and sexuality) field, I wasn’t willing to let these puzzles just slide.

Two parsings (and many interpretations).

 [ VIO [ hair removal ] ‘hair removal related to VIO’, where VIO is one of: a social group, the removers of hair (cf. born-again hair removal, transsexual hair removal, Ainu hair removal, Japanese hair removal ‘hair removal by Japanese (people)’), a method of hair removal (cf. laser hair removal), a philosophy of hair removal (cf. Buddhist hair removal), a place where hair removal is practiced (cf. Japanese hair removal ‘hair removal in Japan’), or any number of other interpretations

[ [ VIO hair ] removal] ‘removal of VIO hair’, where VIO hair is hair related to VIO, VIO admitting of a wide variety of interpretations: an area of the body (cf. armpit hair, pubic hair), a racioethnic group (cf. Black hair, Jewish hair), an evaluative characterization (cf. ugly hair, unwanted hair), a physical characterization (cf. kinky hair), a color (cf. gray hair), and much more

The (apparent) initialism VIO. Acronym dictionaries list a great many unpackings for VIO, but none even remotely hair-relevant. Searching on “VIO hair removal”, I eventually discovered that VIO is Japanese terminology for the bikini zone, with the initials standing for

V line (the pubes and genitals), I line (the perineum), O line (the anus)

So: the three Latin letters are to be understood as iconic signs, as (highly abstract) pictures of the three bodyparts, not as an acronym, not as the initials in an abbreviation. I don’t think that such an interpretation would ever have occurred to me.

No doubt it never occurred to Hiramoto and Robertson, steeped as they are in Japanese sexual culture, that the letter-sequence VIO would be utterly opaque to outsiders, but it is; I had no clue as to what their paper is about, except that hair removal and males are involved, and that the removal takes place in Japan.

Missing lexical items. A recurrent theme on this blog is that languages regularly lack ordinary-language, widely used lexical items for referential categories of things that are in fact relevant in the sociocultural context the language is embedded in.

So it is for English and the body region that extends from the waistline under the crotch to the anus: the pubes, genitals, perineum, and anus, taken together. This is a region of modesty, and it’s socioculturally highly salient in English-speaking communities generally, but English has no lexical item covering just that territory.

The composite phrase private parts would have been a good choice, but it’s already taken, as a euphemism for the central portion of the region of modesty, the genitals. In this case, it’s hard to see how we could get by with a narrow sense of the phrase (the current usage) alongside a broad sense (for the region of modesty). So we’ll bump along with things as they are, as we do in lots of other cases; people cope. Maybe someone can start a fashion for VIO in English.

Cover your VIO, dude! Were you born in a barn? (And while you’re at it, close the front door!)

Playing guitar

September 21, 2023

(This is sick day 2 for me, and I’m barely functioning, but here’s proof that I’m Not Dead Yet.)

On Facebook today, Probal Dasgupta, provoked by this Rich Tennant cartoon, asks about the various argument structure grids for play, with example sentences that mention guitars:

(#1) Transitive play ‘compete against’ (the highly context-bound sense illustrated in the cartoon) vs. ‘perform on (a musical instrument)’ (a very frequent, everyday sense)


going down there

September 12, 2023

(some explorations in sexual slang, with some street language, so not suitable for kids or the sexually modest)

A follow-up to yesterday’s posting “down there”, on male-genital down there, with a section on locational down there in Christopher Isherwood’s title Down There on a Visit (which comes with a strongly sexual tinge) — effectively ‘being down there’. An e-mail comment from Victor Steinbok:

oddly enough, going down there  doesn’t have the [AZ: oral sexual] meaning of going down

To which I replied:

Well, it can, with enough context — I can certainly construct the examples, which have going down as a constituent (with an oblique object marked with on), rather than down there as a constituent — but without such context, yes.

Of course, I’ve now gone on to supply an example, with some context supplied. And some comments on ambiguity.


Manscaping your junk

September 3, 2023

A tv spot ad (only 15 seconds long) for the Gillette Intimate Manscape Kit (Gillette Intimate Pubic Hair Trimmer, Gillette Intimate Pubic Hair Razor, Gillette Intimate Pubic Shave Cream + Cleanser), released at least twice, under different titles:

— ‘It’s Not Junk, so Treat It Right’  [apparently it’s your “pubic region” instead], published 10/31/22

— “Respect Your Junk!”, published 3/11/23

Two matters of linguistic interest here: the noun manscaping and verb manscape; and the noun junk ‘male genitals’. The material I’ve collected on these is extensive enough that I’m not going to try to cram it all into one posting, but will split things in two, in follow-up postings on the noun junk and on the noun manscaping / the verb manscape.


herd it / heard it

August 30, 2023

The pay-off to an elaborate set-up tale, giving a pun on a familiar expression (in this case a song title). From Vince the Sign Guy: Vince Rozmiarek of Indian Hills CO and (from his Facebook page) “his lighthearted puns shown on local community signs”:

Phonologically, there’s a stretch of speech that’s both I herd it through the grapevines (the pun, the pay-off from the vineyard cow story) and the nearly homophonous “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (the model, the song title); semiotically, however, that stretch of speech is either about one of these situations or the other, not two nearly identical situations

Specifically, there’s no metaphorical structuring of the vineyard cow situation (in the story) on the basis of the information exchange situation (in the song). Their only relationship is phonological.

This isn’t a defect; most puns are merely phonological, and that’s fine. Vince Rozmiarek’s vineyard cow story is a great little joke, of a recognizable genre of punning: the set-up + pay-off story based on a formulaic expression — for short, a formula pun.

It’s just that a small number of puns are what I’ve sometimes called — I’ve wrestled a long time with ways of saying this — satisfying, meaning semiotically satisfying: the participants are represented as belonging to two worlds at once. They are anteaters, say, with the formicavore’s passionate hunger for the insects, but they are also diners in conventional American restaurants, insisting on specific kinds of table service and exhibiting dining quirks (like an aversion to spicy food). The first of these worlds is systematically mapped into the second, in an elaborate metaphor. (The restaurant-going anteaters are a recurring theme in Bizarro cartoons.)

From this month in my postings: on 8/3 “Brief shot: cock time”, about the expression cock time:

An atrocious pun [on clock time], but satisfying in that some … item is not merely introduced into a context for a near-homophone, but participates in the world of that model expression. We see something that’s a cock [a man’s penis] and a (kind of) clock.


The Jerk Fest

August 22, 2023

On jerk, jerky, and jerking (off), quoting (in full) two excellent surveys of this domain: from the Grammarphobia site in 2016; from The Ringer site last month — the second of these using research by lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported on his Wall Street Journal column (which is behind a paywall).


Affinal equivalents

August 16, 2023

In a comment on my 8/15 “niblings” posting, Aric Olnes reports having 20 niblings (sib’s kids), “27 including spouses”. Now, sib’s kid is a consanguineal relationship — of kinship “by blood” — in both of its parts, sib and kid. Including spouses introduces an affinal relationship — of kinship by marriage — into the mix.

A nibling’s spouse would be, technically, a nibling-in-law, but we don’t customarily treat such a person as an in-law; either they’re no kin at all (instead, in some Americans’ terminology, they’re a connection), or they’re treated as equivalent to a nibling (the way Aric treats them); sib’s-kid’s spouse counts as equivalent to sib’s kid.


Fresh Baby Meat Ravioli

August 15, 2023

In the everlasting battle between brevity and clarity, this grievous loss for the clarity side, in an Australian grocery skirmish, fought in the aisles of the Preston Market in Melbourne VIC some years back.

From Michael Palmer on Facebook yesterday, this photo of miniature ravioli, made with fresh fillo / filo / phyllo pastry (from Antoniou Fillo Pastry in Moorebank NSW — “specialists in Australia since 1960”), and filled with meat:

[MP, snarkily:] Locally sourced isn’t a problem, but free-range babies are difficult to come by these days

It’s hard not to read the four-word label as advertising ravioli made with fresh baby meat — when the intention was to advertise the ravioli as fresh and baby(-sized) and meat(-filled), or (in my words above) as miniature ravioli, made with fresh fillo pastry, and filled with meat.

Brevity stripped the label down to only four (non-compound) words, and then there was no hope for clarity. You can get it down to four words, but you’ll need more space:

Fresh Baby-Size [or Miniature, or Mini] Meat-Filled Ravioli

The noun baby as a modifier has to go, and there’s not much you can do about the order of the modifiers (since these follow an ordering on the basis of their semantics). But Fresh Mini Meat-Filled Ravioli isn’t much longer.

(MP found other images of this display, from other angles, with a dated version back in 2016 that refers to Preston Market.)