Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Chicken Says “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!”

Posted by Neal on July 29, 2004

“OK, next story,” I said, and picked up the next library book in the stack. It had a great big black and white rooster on the front.

“This one’s called Bob. Looks like it’s about a chicken.”

“A rooster,” Doug said.

“Right, and roosters are chickens.”

“Roosters are boy chickens,” Doug clarified.

“Right, so, all roosters are chickens,” I said. “OK, here we go: Bob, a rooster, lived with a bunch of chickens. Well, he is a chicken, for crying out loud! The chickens clucked all day long, and so did Bob: ‘Cluck, cluck, cluck.’

And so did Bob? This was getting ridiculous. That was like saying, “Smart people shop here, and so do I!” I turned the page.

One day Henrietta told him the truth. ‘Bob,’ she said, ‘you are not a chicken. You are a rooster.’

Ai-yi-yi! It’s not enough for this author just to imply that roosters aren’t chickens; she has to turn it into a lie by saying it outright!

Larry Horn has given this kind of rooster-chicken situation the name of Q-based narrowing. It happens when word B (in this case rooster) denotes a specific kind of what word A denotes (in this case chicken). Eventually, word A comes to be used as if it refers to everything word A denotes except for the things that word B denotes. So for rooster and chicken, chicken is commonly used to mean all kinds of chickens except for those that are roosters. Other examples are easy to find: thumb-finger, square-rectangle, rectangle-quadrilateral, lesbian-gay, senator-congressman. And just as in the “you’re not a chicken” quotation above, in the right context you can say things like, “That’s not my finger, that’s my thumb” and get away with it (sometimes even when I’m within earshot!), even though it’s still true to say you have ten fingers.

So why am I so irritated with Bob? I think it’s because this time, there is another word, also more specific than chicken, that means “all chickens except for roosters”: hens! Why couldn’t the author just say Bob lived with a lot of hens, and have Henrietta the cat tell him he wasn’t a hen?

Oh, wait a minute. Uh, I guess hen doesn’t cover chicks…

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9 Responses to “The Chicken Says “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!””

  1. Anonymous said

    All I have to say is that I agree. That is stupid. It reminds me of another thing we agreed on, a trick old JP “Mr. Mustache” Whitman tried on me:

    JP: If a roster lays an egg on the top of a roof, which way will it roll?
    GL: A slanted roof?
    JP: Sure.
    GL: Do they have equal angles?
    JP: Yeah.

    [lots of questions... then the stinger]

    JP: HA HA! Roosters don’t lay eggs, hens do!
    GL: But your hypothesis stated “if a rooster,” which means that we have to assume in your model, a rooster laid an egg.
    JP: But roosters don’t lay eggs, Grig. Only a hen does.
    GL: I know that, but they don’t often sit on the edges of pointed 2-planed roofs, either. Roosters usually sit on fences, or a perch near the henhouse. But that wasn’t your question.
    JP: Uh-huh…
    GL: You did not ask “Does a rooster,” or “Will a rooster.” You asked “if,” which is a hypothesis and a setup for a question you want an answer to, like, “Suppose the killer was NOT a man, but a woman?” or “If the killer did NOT know the victim, what would be the motive?”
    JP: You’ve been talking to Neal, again, haven’t you?
    GL: In this case, I had to assume the rooster did lay eggs, because you said they did. Saying “roosters do not lay eggs,” might have been disrespectful to an elder, and not the type of answer you asked for.
    JP: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.
    GL: Wait ’til I get going!

    No… wait, maybe I am mixing it up with “The Princess Bride.” Anyway, I have learned to asnwer that question with, “In your hypothesis, I am to assume a rooster, a male chicken, has laid an egg, which is usually done by a hen, and then assume that it rolls down one side or the other of a slanted roof. Am I correct?

    Grig

  2. Neal said

    Yeah, and of course you know how we’ve gone round and round about how many legs a sheep has if you call its tail a leg. If by “call its tail a leg” you mean “define ‘leg’ to mean any of these five appendages,” then the answer is 5, and remarks about how “calling it a leg doesn’t make it a leg” are just so much baloney.

  3. Anonymous said

    You say we have ten fingers (rather than, say, eight
    fingers and two thumbs). I tell my three year old
    son Christopher that this is fairly standard usage.
    But I also tell him that we careful speakers well
    speak of eight fingers, two thumbs, and ten -digits-.
    (But I am not dogmatic on this point!)

  4. [...] I realized that Mom and the cop were right: You can’t say you’re in an abusive relationship unless you mean you’re the one being abused. But why not? An abusive relationship by definition involves at least two people, at least one of whom must be an abuser. I’d say it’s similar to the Q-based narrowing (a term coined by Larry Horn) that happens with words such as gay, rectangle, and finger, such that they are sometimes (or often, or almost always) taken to exclude lesbians, squares, and thumbs, respectively. The Q refers to the principle of Quantity, such that a speaker gives as much information as is useful. Since the terms lesbian, square, and thumb are more informative than gay, rectangle, and finger, hearers tend to assume you will use them if possible. Meanwhile, in the absence of concise and specific terms for gay men, rectangles that aren’t squares, and fingers that aren’t thumbs, the general terms tend to take on those meanings. In the case at hand, the word abuser is more specific than the phrase in an abusive relationship, and thus, in an abusive relationship has settled upon the meaning of the non-abuser member(s) of the relationship. [...]

  5. [...] A-ha! I’ve seen those signs, and never realized the significance of the wording. But now that Fisher has laid it out for me, I see it’s a clear case of Q-based narrowing. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “[Q-based narrowing] happens when word B denotes a specific kind of what word A denotes. Eventually, word A comes to be used as if it refers to everything word A denotes except for the things that word B denotes.” Here, word A is retain, and word B is re-elect, a specific way of retaining someone. If you can unambiguously and truthfully say re-elect, implicating that a candidate was good enough to get elected before, why on earth would you choose the less specific retain? You wouldn’t, and now retain on campaign posters is used to refer only to keeping someone in office who wasn’t elected to it. Explore posts in the same categories: Pragmatics [...]

  6. John Cowan said

    Ah, if only in the case of individuals of the bovine persuasion our lovely language actually had a wider term to narrow!

  7. Ugh. Reminds me of that episode of Sex and the City where everytime Carrie complains about the “chickens” that are keeping her up all night with their crowing, her interlocutor looks at her like she’s a dumb city slicker and says “Roosters. Roosters crow.” That was so annoying.

    A similar case to the phenomenon you describe but, I think, not quite identical is the contention that black and/or white are not colors, or that atheism is not a religion.

  8. Don Nicholls said

    Roosters your arse. Rooster is a name concocted by American prudish Victorians so that they wouldn’t have to say Cock. The same kind of thing happened in New Zealand, and is the reason for all those Maori type names beginning with Wh, as in Whangerei and Whakaroa. The Maoris didn’t have a written language, so the Victorian English of the time disguised the F word with a WH. The pronunciations are are still the same though, Fungeray and Fukeroa. See what I mean. Pointless.

  9. [...] by which a word’s meaning gets restricted over time. One is called Q-based narrowing (discussed here before). To recap, Q-based narrowing occurs when you have a term A that can refer to a variety [...]

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