Archive for the ‘Pragmatics’ Category

Is the farmer busy or pretty?

November 25, 2023

An old One Big Happy strip, one in a long series in which Ruthie or her brother Joe is confronted with some type of test question (rather than an information-seeking question):

Ruthie is laboring at a workbook — a culture object that subjects a student to test questions, in this case a question requiring the student to demonstrate their understanding of the culturally appropriate grounds for publicly assessing the characteristics of other people: industriousness is an appropriate ground for assessing a farmer (because it’s relevant to his doing his job), while a conventionally attractive appearance is not

Even though she’s filling in questions in a workbook, Ruthie falls back on treating busy-or-pretty? as a question about her opinions, rather than her knowledge of cultural appropriateness. In fact, for all we can tell from the workbook picture, Farmer Brown might not be at all busy; he might be sitting upright in a stationary tractor, daydreaming about what’s for supper. But he could perfectly well be busy, while even if was drawn to look like a handsome film star, his looks would be culturally irrelevant to his job. (Subtle point: they would, however, be culturally relevant in general, since men judged to be conventionally good-looking have a social edge over other men in various contexts.)

Here, Ruthie personalizes her response by giving her opinions. In other OBH test-question strips she looks situations from her point of view or takes her own experiences as background for answering questions. But test questions demand a depersonalized stance — and then regularly plumb very fine points of sociocultural awareness. Fine points that for the most part aren’t treated in the workbooks, aren’t explicitly taught in schools. I’ll give one further example from an earlier posting of mine below.


A bulletin from Pejora, the land of derogation and insult

September 1, 2023

🐇 🐇 🐇 rabbit rabbit rabbit to inaugurate September, Labor Day weekend in my country, autumn in my hemisphere, and the 84th year of my life (I’m about to be — this coming Wednesday — 83, a nice prime number)

Meanwhile, a comment by Stewart Kramer on my 8/22 posting “The Jerk Fest” leads me to some reflections on where slurs — like jerk approximating asshole — come from. A slur like this use of jerk, or asshole itself,

— levels a culturally serious charge against its target (in the case of asshole, involving, among other things, arrogance, pretension, and rudeness)

— attributes this offense to a character flaw in the target (in Geoffrey Nunberg’s analysis of asshole, the flaw of culpable obtuseness — about their own importance, about the needs of others and the way they’re perceived by them)

— and insults the target.

The slur jerk developed from jerk referring to a fool or incompetent — what I’ll call a (mere) devaluation, meaning a term that refers to an identity regarded as of little worth. The examples that turn up in discussions of pejoration that I’ll cite involve terms referring to the devalued identities of fools and the inept (old-style jerk, dope, dummy); rustics and farm folk (hick, hillbilly, hayseed); and women (chick, dame, girl), but an extended discussion would take in (at least) terms referring to oddballs and nonconformists; foreigners; members of certain racioethnic groups; the aged; the disabled; and members of sexual minorities. (Bear in mind how astoundingly culture-specific all this material is.)

The route from devaluation to slur involves elevating cultural associations with the devalued identities to connotations of the devaluation and then to its semantic content: nasty metonymy, if you will. Fools and incompetents are seen as prone to egotistical interactions with others, so that foolish jerk begins to pick up the connotations of arrogance and rudeness, which can then become conventional aspects of meaning, leading to assholish jerk. The various stages in this progression can co-occur with one another for some time, as is certainly the case with jerk as described in the pieces quoted in my “Jerk Fest” posting.


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.


Why do you ask?

August 23, 2023

The One Big Happy strip that came up in my comics feed on 12/7/18 — the Ramona St. posting mill grinds slowly, very slowly — is all about pragmatics, in particular what we take to be the point of questions we’re asked. In the strip, Ruthie asks her father what you can do to stop hiccups. Her father doesn’t inquire into why she’s asking, but assumes that she’s not merely asking an information question (she might, after all, be researching the matter for a presentation at school), and it never occurs to him that she’s asking a quiz question (to which she already knows the answer, but is checking his paternal competence at everyday medical care, should the occasion arise). Instead, he assumes that she has a personal interest in the answer to the question — this turns out to be so — indeed, that she has the hiccups and wants to know how to stop them — that’s a good guess, and it’s close, but it’s wrong — so instead of answering Ruthie’s question, by describing an appropriate remedy, he leaps to supplying the remedy himself:

(#1) A well-intentioned action misfire that follows from the various (literal) meanings of questions; practical reasoning about which ones are likely to be relevant to the situation at hand; the calculation of meanings that can be indirectly conveyed given a literal meaning — most pressingly the calculation of Ruthie’s intentions in asking this particular question, so that her father can respond to those intentions; and then his short-circuiting his reaction to all of this by dispensing with a verbal reply and going right to the action it would recommend

Why is she asking? That’s the crucial point, where it would be easy to go wrong.


The definite article of salience

August 6, 2023

The Mother Goose and Grimm strip of 12/3/15 (lots of stuff hangs around on my desktop for a really long time), depicting a canine guardian of the gates of dog heaven:

The definite article of uniqueness, here distinguishing a proper name St. Bernard (unique in some salient world for the user and their audience), the name of a specific saint, from a common noun St. Bernard (a type name), the name of a breed of dogs

Now it turns out that this usage can be employed to distinguish two proper nouns (according to their salience in a particular sociocultural context); and to distinguish two common nouns (picking out the salient type, rather than naming an individual). (Necessarily rather complex) examples follow.


Today’s satiric artwork

July 24, 2023

Also today’s food art. From Bill Badecker on Facebook this morning:

[The Orange Menace]’s lawyers have assailed the Georgia case in their efforts to derail it ahead of any indictments. “It is one thing to indict a ham sandwich,” some of his lawyers said in a recent court filing. “To indict the mustard-stained napkin that it once sat on is quite another.” – NYT, July 22

With this portrait of Helmet Grabpussy, a.k.a. Mustard Staining Cheesy Ham Sandwich:

Fond as I am of my own mocking names — do not utter the true name of the demon, lest you invoke him — Helmet Grabpussy and The Orange Menace — I admire Mustard Staining Cheesy Ham Sandwich. It is, alas, unwieldy, though I suppose it could be initialized to MSCHS (which has a nice rhythm). Or condensed to MusChee.


Breakfast of champions

June 12, 2023

(Like Mary, Queen of Scots, I am not dead yet  — but my right hand barely works because the finger joints are seized up so terribly I can’t straighten the fingers, and painfully swollen, and I am mightily pissed; had to apply ice packs at dusk yesterday, when the air pressure went way low and the pain got intolerable. This is, blessedly, a brief posting with not much typing to do.)

Max Vasilatos on Facebook on 6/10, with a smiling selfie:

(#1) Max’s header: “Breakfast of champions” — Twizzlers (twists of licorice-like candy, in various flavors) as a guilty pleasure, possibly even for breakfast

The Wiktionary entry for breakfast of champions:

(ironic) Beer, junk food, or other foods implied to be unhealthy. ETYMOLOGY Originally an advertising slogan for Wheaties breakfast cereal. Used ironically in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions to refer to a martini.


Don’t ask! 2

May 25, 2023

A Peanuts strip, featuring Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty:

(#1) But wait! Patty’s Don’t ask! is not a request for Charlie not to ask about her feelings (which would directly contradict her requesting Charlie to ask about her feelings); instead, it’s an exclamation (in Yiddish English) conveying Patty’s dismay at feeling really crappy

We have been through this use of Don’t ask! previously on this blog, in the aptly named posting of 1/31/21, “Don’t ask!”:


Who am I kidding?

May 24, 2023

(Note: in this posting I’m going to be unrelentingly careful about the way I frame descriptions of linguistic phenomena (not falling back on the descriptive language of school grammar, which would be familiar to readers but which I believe to be fucked up beyond repair). So there will be a lot of technical talk here; please try to play along, but I don’t think there’s any way to do this right without re-thinking everything from the ground up.)

This is about a perfectly common expression — Who am I kidding? — that went past me in a flash on Facebook this morning but caused me (as a student of GUS — grammar, usage, and style / register) to reflect on the pronoun case in it. On the interrogative human pronoun, appearing here in what I’ll call its Form 1, who, rather than its Form 2, whom.

The pronoun in this expression is the direct object of the verb in the expression, KID, appearing in sentence-initial position (appearing “fronted”) in the WH-question construction of English. There’s nothing at all remarkable about this: in general, both forms of this pronoun are available as syntactic objects (of verbs or prepositions) in the language, differing only in their style / register (very roughly, formal whom vs informal who), with the special case of an object pronoun actually in combination with its governing preposition, which is  obligatorily in Form 2:

Who / Whom did you speak to? BUT *To who / ✓to whom did you speak?

So there’s nothing remarkable about Who am I kidding? It’s just informal.

What’s remarkable is the unacceptability of Whom am I kidding? The stylistic discord between the formality of object whom and the informality of the idiom WH-Pro am I kidding? is unresolvable. To put it another way, the choice of the Form 1 pronoun here is part of the idiom. Just like the choice of the PRP form of the verb KID, conveying progressive aspect: Who do I kid? lacks the idiomatic meaning.



April 17, 2023

Well, the title pretty much gives the joke away. An outrageous (but phonologically perfect) pun in a Bizarro cartoon from 9/6/12:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbol in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there’s just 1 in this strip — see this Page.)

What the woman and her two kids get to view is Disney on ice —

(the body of the dead-since-1966 Walt) Disney (resting) on (a block of preservative) ice (in a display case)

What she bought tickets to was an entertainment (especially aimed at children) called Disney on Ice

(an entertainment in which characters from the Walt) Disney (Company’s animated cartoons are portrayed by performers skating) on ice