Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Old Pictures, Naked Pictures

Posted by Neal on July 25, 2013

As those of you who follow me on Twitter may have gathered, I have a gig for the next week and a half as one of the PA announcers at the Ohio State Fair. In all my years in Ohio, I have never been to the State Fair until yesterday, and after one day, I’ve already learned some things about agriculture here. The electrical room is on the second floor of a building named the Brown Arena, but informally called the sheep arena. Walking past all those sheep on the way to the staircase to the electrical room, I was reminded of the last line of “Little Bo Peep”: “Leave them alone, and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.” Tails? What tails? There wasn’t a tail in sight. Someone confirmed that sheeps’ tails are routinely docked, although I don’t know if it’s for easier cleaning, easier mating, or some other purpose. Maybe I can ask when I’m there today.

Anyway, as I was driving to work yesterday morning, I listened to the news, which included the latest about Anthony Weiner’s habit of sending “naked pictures” of himself to young women. As always, I made the mental translation:

naked picture of X = picture of naked X

In other words, naked pictures are not pictures unprotected by frames or photo albums. I wondered if this same kind of transferred epithet occurred for clothed pictures, and I now see that it does.

You've heard of beady eyes? This is how I picture beady eyes. What do you think?

Later, as I played the pre-recorded commercials and announcements for the day, I listened to one advertising last night’s featured performer, ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. (My wife met me after I got off work, and we saw the show. It was funny!) The spot included a few clips from his shows, including one with his cranky old man character named Walter, whose schtick includes always complaining about his wife’s sexual unattractiveness. “But I saw an old picture of your wife,” Dunham says (in his own voice). Walter responds, “An old picture!”

Whoa! “Naked picture of X” means X is naked, but “old pictures of X” does not mean X is old! Just the opposite, in fact. Old and young do not work as transferred epithets with pictures. Got any other adjectives that almost always or almost never work as a transferred epithet with certain nouns? Let’s have them!

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2 Responses to “Old Pictures, Naked Pictures”

  1. the ridger said

    Yes, US sheep farmers routinely dock the lambs’ tails. European farmers don’t. American farmers will tell you it’s to prevent fly infestations. A quick Google search on “sheep tails” will tell you all you want to know, plus give you pictures of sheep with their tails undocked.

    I got nothing on the actual question about adjectives, though.

  2. The things you assume everyone knows when you grow up on a farm … yeah, as The Ridger says, it’s so that the rear end of a sheep can be kept relatively clean, and therefore not be such an attractive place for flies to lay eggs in that would hatch into maggots that would burrow into all that tasty living sheep flesh.

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