Archive for the ‘Politeness’ Category

He meant to say “supine”

February 11, 2018

Wilson Gray on ADS-L on the 6th:

“She was lying on her back, when she was stabbed, in the prone position.”

He meant to say, “in the supine position,” of course.

There’s no “of course” here. No, that is almost surely not what the speaker meant to say; I’d wager he intended to say exactly what he did say. It’s just not what Wilson thinks the speaker should have said. (Or he’s mocking people who talk this way, though I failed to detect any raised eyebrows in what he wrote so briefly and dismissively.)

We have here a widespread vulgar confusion, a failure to distinguish

between inadvertent errors, things that are “wrong” for the person who produces them, and advertent errors, things that are ok so far as the producer is concerned but “wrong” from the point of view of at least some other people. (Faced with [the first], you call in the psycholinguist; faced with [the second], you call in the sociolinguist.) (Language Log link)

On top of that, Wilson has the sociolinguistic facts wrong, through a confusion between ordinary language and technical language: supine is a technical term for a bodily postion (lying flat on one’s back), used in certain specific domains (anatomy, sport, and shooting, in particular); in those domains, its counterpart (referring to lying flat on one’s belly) is prone, but in ordinary language, outside these specific domains, prone can refer to lying flat in general, and supine isn’t used at all.

The mistake here lies in assuming that technical, domain-specific (medical, botanical, technologcal, etc.) vocabulary is the true, correct, uniquely valid scheme for naming. From my 7/27/15 posting “Misleadingly named animals”, on zoological names:

The terminology “true fly” and “true bug” (etc.) here arises from the attitude that the naming practices of biologists are the only valid (true) naming schemes — what I’ll call technicalism. In the case of fly and bug, technicalism is remarkable from the historical point of view, since the specialized use of these nouns represents a decision to use perfectly ordinary vocabulary as technical terminology by drastically restricting its reference.


A hypothetical question?

August 9, 2015

The Zits from the 7th:

Jeremy is given to responding to what people say in perfectly literal terms, not taking account of their reasons for framing things the way they do. He’s deliberately no good at Gricean relevance — a tactic that, by his lights, allows him to do nothing at all in situations where people (in particular, his mother) are trying to get him to do something.

As here. Jeremy’s mother asks him a question about his ability, a standard form of indirect request, framed this way out of politeness, so as to avoid issuing a direct command. But Jeremy takes her to be literally asking about his ability, a question asked only in case it might turn out that she wants his help in clearing the table.


The unflappable waitress

July 23, 2015

Today’s Bizarro:

Hun / hon.

The informal clipped form hon (for honey) as a term of address is stereotypically used, along with other pet names like the full honey, sweetie, dear(ie), and doll, by waitresses to their customers, in addition to the use of these as terms of endearment to genuine intimates. Many customers find the usage disrespectful and insulting, expressing intimacy in a situation where they see that deference to authority is called for.

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Don Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

No problem

December 31, 2014

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm:

Mother Goose objects to (what she sees as) an innovation in politeness routines, seeing it as recent (and characteristic of kids) and especially associated with serving people. These criticisms has been leveled by many others.


Degrading the language?

April 12, 2014

John McWhorter, in the April 6th NYT Sunday Review, the piece ““Like, Degrading the Language? No Way”, in which John sounds a familiar theme for him, that novel usages and the change in old usages to new purposes and fresh sets of speakers is not decline, but shows an active drive towards greater expressiveness and nuance.


More “How are you?”

January 25, 2014

Following up on my posting on “How are you?” (and the answer “(I’m) fine”): mail to the NYT. A response much like mine, but more detailed, from linguist Deborah Tannen, and another peeve about conventional idioms of social life. (more…)