Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

It Was Made Today!

Posted by Neal on April 25, 2011

When I was in kindergarten, Dad bought me The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles. I liked it so much that when we were going to take a road trip from El Paso, Texas to Kentucky to visit my cousins that summer, Dad read the whole book (all 60 pages of it) aloud onto cassette tapes for me to listen to in the car.

Mostly I remember the illustrations from the book: Giant dragonflies from the Carboniferous Period, the Brachiosaurus standing in the swamp, a Gorgosaurus grabbing a duckbilled dinosaur in its jaws without even breaking its stride. But there was one turn of phrase that stuck with me. It was in the last chapter, where the author talked about the process of fossilization and the means of recovering them. Here’s the passage:

There it is: “You may say, ‘Why can’t we go dinosaur-hunting today?’”, and the elliptical response, “You can!” Literal-minded though I may have been, I didn’t take the sentence You can [go dinosaur-hunting today] to mean literally the very day on which I was reading it or hearing it. Maybe it was because I realized today would refer to different days depending when I was reading it, or when the author wrote it. Instead, I made a mental note that today could have a more general meaning of “these days”.

One day during the following school year I was walking around on the playground with a classmate, who found a penny. He showed it to me, and I saw that the year 1976 was stamped on it: the current year!

“Wow!” I said. “This penny was made today!” Even before I’d finished the sentence, I could tell it didn’t sound right. My classmate did, too. He was looking at me as if he hadn’t realized until just then exactly what an idiot I was.

“It wasn’t made today!” he said in a disgusted tone.

Um, right. I got that, and I wondered how I could have arrived at such a silly meaning for today. Looking back, I think what messed me up is that today in the sentence about fossils really did mean “on this day” after all. It’s true: You can go dinosaur-hunting this very day if you want to and you’re in the right place. (I’m not. There are no dinosaur fossils in Ohio, except those that were found somewhere else and then brought here.) The crucial difference was that the sentence in the book had the modal can. It’s the possibility of dinosaur-hunting that exists today, not necessarily the actual doing of it. But when I talked about the penny, I was talking about actualities, not possibilities.

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8 Responses to “It Was Made Today!”

  1. punkadyne said

    I also had this book! w00t!

    - Grig

  2. punkadyne said

    This book also reminds me of those grade school classes where films had a disagreement between two ways to pronounce “reptiles.”

    1. reptiles like “rep” and “tiles”
    2. reptiles like “rep” and “tills”

    I hated “reptills,” often said like, “REP-tlz” quickly. Then there was that one film that pronounced Saudi Arabia, “sah-OOODEE arabia” we used to make fun of. Made it sound like the narrator was calling pigs.

  3. The Ridger said

    Sadly, I believe that in Arabic at least, there’s a glottal stop between the Sa and the ud, rather than it being a diphthong.

    • speedwell said

      Yes, that’s true. But does “Saudi Arabia,” in the English language, have one?

      People concerned with such things should also pronounce other English words in the accent of the language the words were originally borrowed from, just to be consistent. Nobody will be able to understand them, but at least they’ll be more entertaining that way.

      • The Ridger said

        Of course there isn’t. And I agree with you: it’s Naples, and Munich, and Saint-Petersburg. But I was merely exploring – not knowing what film you were referencing – a reason for that pronunciation.

    • punkadyne said

      But in this case, it was “over-pronounced.” For instance, there was a plague of newscaster over-pronouncing Spanish in the 1990s. Jimmy Smots used to joke about it, and it eventually ended up as an SNL skit. Paraphrasing:

      Jimmy: Okay, who ordered the burrito from the Nicaraguan place?
      Actor: I ordered OO-NO burrr-HET-TO from NIH-cgor-RAH-GHWAAH
      Jimmy: And the taco–
      Actor: DOHS DAH-cosss from HEC-wah-DHORRR!
      Jimmy: Tell me, what do you call those whirling storms with the funnel?
      Actor: A dtohrrr-NAH-do… why?

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