Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Frings Redux

Posted by Neal on March 27, 2006

As I was going through my old postings imported from Blogger and tagging them with categories, I came across about the word frings that I decided they deserved their own category. Longtime readers may recall that for many years I have objected to this word on the grounds that it is clearly a plural word, but its singular form has no meaning. Or at least, none that you can formulate without resorting to an or: “a french fry or an onion ring.” And why is it so bad to have an or in the definition? Well, my problem with it has been that it paves the way toward making up words for any set of objects that don’t form any kind of a class. You could create a word, say gritch, and define it as “a toothbrush or a sea cucumber.”

However, I now have to withdraw this objection, first of all because there is at least one precedent for this kind of disjunctive definition for a non-fring-type word: uncle seems to require an or, in that an uncle is either a parent’s brother or a parent’s sister’s husband. And I can’t dismiss this case by saying uncle is actually two homophonous words, one meaning “parent’s brother” and one meaning “parent’s sister’s husband,” because (aside from it being circular logic), I’d have to come up with a story for why you can say, “All my uncles were at the reunion” and mean both kinds of uncle.

Second, I’ve realized the “french fry or onion ring” definition isn’t accurate, anyway. Suppose I show you a set of men and tell you they’re all my uncles. It might be that some might fit definition A for uncle and others fit definition B. But it could also be that they’re all Type A uncles, or all Type B uncles. Likewise, if fring were defined as “a fry or an onion ring”, then a pile of just fries or just onion rings would as a quantity of frings just as well as a pile of both mixed together. But that’s not the case. I know if Glen or Dad ordered frings at a restaurant and got just fries or just rings, he’d complain. A more accurate definition would be: A fring is any member of a collection of both fries and rings that are served together. There, no more or.

In the earlier posts, another frings-like word came up: stoplight peppers refers to a red, a yellow, and a green bell pepper neatly packaged together, whereas any member of this set is just a red or yellow or green pepper, not a stoplight pepper. Glen pointed out (a little too gleefully) that beanie weenies refers to a mixture of beans and chunks of hot dog, but any individual morsel extracted from a hot, steaming plateful of beanie weenies is either a bean or a hot dog chunk, not a beanie weenie. Fellow blogger Blar discovered another example in December, writing:

Team Cheerios are my favorite breakfast cereal. For those who don’t know, a box of Team Cheerios contains three kinds of Cheerios: regular Cheerios, frosted Cheerios, and Cheerios that are sweetened with brown sugar. Whenever I eat a bowl of Team Cheerios, I eat them up until not a single team cheerio is left. If a team cheerio falls out of the bowl, I pick it up and say “Hey, you team cheerio, you’re not getting away!” and then I eat it. That’s how much I love the taste of a team cheerio.

The proposed definition for fring can be adapted for stoplight pepper, beanie weenie, and Team Cheerio, too: A {stoplight pepper, beanie weenie, Team Cheerio} is any member of a collection of {a red, a yellow, and a green pepper; beans and chunks of hot dog; regular, frosted, and brown-sugar sweetened Cheerios} that are packaged together.

With all these other examples of words that behave like frings, why do I still dislike frings? Why does it bother me that there is no one object that is both a fry and a ring, but not that there is no one Team Cheerio that is simultaneously three kinds of Cheerio; no one beanie weenie that is simultaneously a bean and a piece of weenie; no one pepper that’s a red one, a yellow one, and a green one; no one uncle that is both a parent’s brother and a parent’s sister’s husband? (Well, maybe there’s an uncle like that in your family, but not in mine.)

At this point, the only thing I can see that differentiates frings from the other words is that frings is a portmanteau word (aka a blended word), and my gut feeling is that a portmanteau word should have something to do with each of the words that have been used to form it. Take spork, for instance, the name for the hybrid spoon/fork often seen in school lunchrooms. This single object has some of the properties of a spoon, some of the properties of a fork. And you can’t just throw a bunch of spoons and forks together and say you have a pile of sporks. In a pile of sporks, any item you pick up has to be a combination spoon and fork. Hence, my feeling that there should be such a thing as a single fring that’s kind of like a fry and kind of like a ring, and my unease because there isn’t.

Of course, this kind of explanation is seldom convincing, where you find some difference between what you’re interested in and everything else, and then blame it for whatever phenomenon you’re trying to explain. (Just So Stories is the usual disparaging term for them.) Even so, this one can be falsified: All we need is one portmanteau word other than frings that refers to a mixture of different items, whose singular can refer to any member of the collection.

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6 Responses to “Frings Redux”

  1. Big Ben said

    I found it interesting that you went into extended family for the “uncles” example, when “brother” is also an or word (older male sibling or younger male sibling). Back when I taught English, Japanese people used to ask me “how do you know which you’re talking about?” Interesting how our linguistic and cultural backgrounds influence the way we think about these groupings.

    The Japanese word for “uncle”, oji, is written with different kanji depending on whether the uncle is older or younger than the sibling parent, but there is no differentiation between whether the uncle is on the mother’s side or the father’s side.

    BTW, Frings are called “onipote” in Japanese, portmanteauish blend of “onion” and “poteto“.

  2. It’s obvious to me (which means it’s probably preposterous to a lot of people) that uncle in the sense aunt’s husband is an extension of the primary meaning parent’s brother.

  3. arabicgems said

    >Interesting how our linguistic and cultural backgrounds influence the way we think about >these groupings.

    You’re right Big Ben. Some south asian languages such as Urdu have a very specific vocabulary for these relations, due to the high regard they have for the family unit. So they would have a different word for older uncle on the mother’s side, older uncle on the father’s side, younger uncle on the mother’s side, younger uncle on the father’s side, and so on for every single family member.

  4. Neal said

    Big Ben: It is an interesting reflection on the culture that Japanese have different words for older and younger brothers. Even so, the definition in English does not need to be expressed with a disjunction as “older male who has the same mother and same father as you or younger male who has the same mother and same father as you”. Just factor out the common part and you’re left with “male who has the same mother and same father as you”. I don’t think you can do that with uncle. Even if you have a broadened definition of brother, as Anton suggests, then you just push the disjucntion into the definition for that: “male who has the same mother and father as you, or male who has married a female who has the same mother and father as you.”

    So do you know what Japanese people call a fry or a ring from a bag of onipote?

  5. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Swedish, too, makes finer kinship distinctions than English (usually based on maternal vs. paternal descent). No generic word for “grandparent”, “uncle”, or “aunt” exists: a person is described as “father’s mother”, “mother’s brother” or some similar compound word. Even the earlier generations are described with unwieldy-but-precise compounds; “great-great-grandmother” could be translated several ways, depending on which side of the family was involved at each step.

    Oddly enough, Swedes also had a generic term for “brothers and sisters” (syskon) before English-speakers used “sibling” in non-scientific contexts. It seems odd that they’re more particular about older generations than about members of their own…

  6. Big Ben said

    For individual onipote, I’m afraid we’re back to the original fring problem—it’s either a “poteto” or an “onion”.

    And here I fly off on another series of language trivia tangents. It’s “poteto“, borrowed from English, when it’s deep fried. Baked, boiled, or stewed potatoes are “jagaimo“. The “jaga”, comes from “Jakarta”, a port through which they were often shipped when they were first introduced to Japan.

    On a related vegetables-and-place-names tangent, “kabocha squash”, recently available in US supermarkets, get their name from “Cambodia”. Apparently the Portugese called pumpkins “Cambodian squash” when they brought them to Japan, and “kabocha” became the generic term for squash and pumpkins.

    What were we talking about again?

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