Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dagwood’s Lack of Focus

Posted by Neal on May 15, 2006

Dagwood is sitting watching TV in today’s strip, and Blondie asks him what he’s watching. He enthusiastically tells her that “it’s an old-fashioned movie,” because:

The cowboy only kissed his horse!

The trouble is, there is no indication of where the stress(es) should fall, which would show which chunk of the sentence is being focused, or in other words, which chunk only applies to. The pattern of stress could be any of the following:

  1. The cowboy only kissed his horse.
  2. The cowboy only kissed his horse.
  3. The cowboy only kissed his horse.
  4. The cowboy only kissed his horse.

In the first pattern, the entire phrase kissed his horse is focused, with stress on kissed and a slightly lower (in phoneticians’ terms, downstepped) pitch on horse. With this intonation, Dagwood would be saying that in old-fashioned movies, all cowboys ever do is kiss their horses. They never have cattle drives or poker games or showdowns at high noon. Hmmm.

OK, let’s try the next one. Here, just kissed is focused, so we conclude that the only things cowboys do to their horses in old-fashioned movies is kiss them. Not ride them, or feed them, or shoot them; just kiss them. As an aside, I wonder why columnists like James Kilpatrick never point out the kind of ambiguity we get between #1 and #2 when they get on their soapbox about the proper placement of only. They can’t show a nice disambiguation just by moving the only around, so it seems they ignore the issue. Anyway, I don’t think #2 is the intended reading, either. Next!

In the third stress pattern, just his is focused, implicating that in modern movies, cowboys are indiscriminate about whose horses they kiss. (Dagwood could also conveyed this meaning by putting the only right before the his and stressing the his.) Interesting visual, but I still don’t think we’re there.

In the fourth stress pattern, the focus is on horse; in old-fashioned movies, the only things cowboys kiss is horses. (The same meaning as you’d get if you put the only right before the his and stressed horse). So in old-fashioned movies, cowboys don’t kiss women, children, or other men. Oh, now I get it! This is another Brokeback Mountain joke!

Frankly, I find the first three readings funnier.

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One Response to “Dagwood’s Lack of Focus”

  1. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    I’m reminded of the comments inspired by a T-shirt I used to own: some people saw “Just hug me” as a sexual invitation, but I intended it as quite the opposite: “I’m uninterested in sex of any sort…please, just HUG me.” (Of course, I never met anyone so literal-minded that I’d reject a “hello” or help with a business transaction from those people, as long as they “JUST hug me”!)

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