Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘The wife’ Category

Bibbers

Posted by Neal on October 13, 2013

One day in August, I picked up Doug and a couple of his friends from band rehearsal (remember Ken and Holt?). It was a special day, because after a couple of weeks of anticipation, the band members’ bibbers had come in. Doug, Holt, and Ken were each carrying a plastic bag with a folded black garment in it. Those, I presumed, must be the bibbers. I had never seen or heard of a bibber before.

Well, correction. Whatever a bibber was, I had probably seen one any time I watched a marching band perform. I was interested to see exactly what Doug’s looked like when we got home. It turned out to look something like this:

Bibbers, doing some serious bibbing

During the next couple of weeks, we adjusted the straps, pinned and hemmed the legs, then washed and hung up the bibber. Doug has now been wearing it for the halftime shows at the football games, and the marching band competitions that his school has participated in. So I figured I was pretty well familiar with bibbers, until one Friday early this month, as Doug was getting ready for the evening show, he asked his mother, “Mom, have you seen my bibbers?”

She asked me, “Neal, do you know where Doug’s bibbers are?”

“It’s hanging in the laundry room,” I said. “Why do you two keep calling it a ‘bibbers’?”

“For the same reason I don’t say I put on my pant,” Doug told me.

Oh! I suddenly got it! Like pants, and shorts, and jeans, and trousers, and undies, and other words for other items of clothing that “have two holes, one for each leg,” bibbers was a plurale tantum. Shoot, even overalls is a plurale tantum, and when I got my first look at Doug’s pair unfolded, I’d thought to myself, “Oh, a bibber is like a pair of overalls!” Why hadn’t I made the connection?

My world shifted just a little bit, as I reconciled this new knowledge about bibbers with my previous experience with them. I realized that up until this conversation, the only time I’d seen bibbers when I was learning the word was when there was more than one pair at a time. “The bibbers are here!” “Come get your bibbers!” My bibber was a backformation, pure and simple. Just to confirm, I did a Google search for bibber, and all I found was a handful of proper names, and a most likely bogus Urban Dictionary definition: “A self described big-penised man who in reality isn’t.”

It took me a while to feel natural calling Doug’s “bibber” his bibbers. I knew I’d succeeded, though, when Doug came home from a long day of two band competitions yesterday. He staggered in, unlaced his shoes and dropped them on the kitchen floor. He slipped out of his bibbers, and opened up the pantry door so he could hang them over it. If he had his way, they’d be hanging there for a week, keeping the pantry door hanging open, blocking my view of the TV screen from the kitchen table. And I’d told him not to do it at least twice before. As Doug reached up to put the straps over the pantry door, I nipped things right in the bud, saying, “Don’t you put those there!”

Those, not that! In an unplanned utterance! Re-coding complete.

Posted in Backformation, Doug, The wife | 2 Comments »

At the Movies

Posted by Neal on June 10, 2013

Over the weekend, Doug, Adam, the wife, and I went to see Now You See Me, and it was really good! It was so good that I let my wife go and get the family’s large bucket of popcorn refilled in the middle of the movie instead of doing it myself. I also never bothered going out to refill my large pop. I don’t have much to say regarding linguistics about the movie, except that I wonder how much of the overseas audience will know that they’re supposed to mentally supply “…now you don’t” to the title. (Does that catchphrase exist in other languages?) But there were two things to comment on before the movie.

As the wife was getting our tickets at the automated kiosk, she said, “Wow, there are only seven seats left!” Really? We were 20 minutes early! All the same, we hustled toward the ticket-taker, who said as he handed us our stubs, “That’ll be house seven, on your left.”

That misunderstanding was so funny I had to make a note of it on my phone once we took our seats in house 7. But after standing in line to buy that big tub of popcorn and the refillable drinks to which I have alluded, I had to hurry up with the memo, because the part of the trailer saying how it was time to silence and put away all cell phones and mobile devices was coming on.

Then the previews began, and the first one had a mysterious hooded figure telling someone about her destiny. Doug leaned over me to whisper to Adam, “It’s Assassin’s Creed!” But a minute later, his hopes disintegrated when the preview turned out to be for something called The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. However, I heard a sentence in the preview that I wanted to write down–but I’d silenced and put away my cell phone! So instead, I took my pen and wrote as best I could in the dark:

Not bad, for writing mostly blind

See that? There’s only so long you can hide from the truth. It’s another one like There’s only so small I can cut it and There’s only so memorized the thing can get. An existential There is that introduces not a noun phrase, but an adjective or adverb. (Adverb, in this case.) Nice!

Then we finally got to the feature itself, and I saw a production logo that I wasn’t familiar with. It turned out to be for “K/O Paper Products.” Bob Orci’s company! I hadn’t known they were producing this movie! All I knew about was that big sci-fi epic that had their name all over it this summer, and their Ender’s Game movie coming out this fall. But being as how Bob regaled Doug and Adam with magic tricks at the rehearsal dinner for their Uncle Glen’s wedding last fall, seeing an Orci-produced movie about magicians was even more fun.

Posted in Movies, Syntax, The wife | 3 Comments »

Steaming Piles

Posted by Neal on February 13, 2012

Once upon a time, Doug and Adam and I were sitting in the waiting room at the vet’s office. I don’t even remember which cat we had brought in that day, although it was probably Nick, with his chronic nasal problems. What I do remember, and what Doug and Adam remember, is a terrier with curly black fur, a terrier they now refer to simply as Smelly Dog. Smelly Dog was agitated, whining and restlessly shifting side to side while his owner tried to calm him down. Then, suddenly…

Maybe you’ve seen fountains of blood spurting from severed arteries in some of the gorier videogames, or in the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or in real life. That’s what it was like in the vet’s waiting room, except that the blood wasn’t shooting out of a brachial, femoral or carotid artery, but Smelly Dog’s rear end. And it wasn’t blood. It squirted, and squirted, and squirted. As we watched in disgusted fascination, the smell reached us.

“Aww, do you feel better now?” Smelly Dog’s owner cooed, while Doug and Adam scrambled for the exit.

Every now and then Doug or Adam will remember that story and reminisce with his brother, or me. The last time it happened, I was busy heating up a serving of chana masala for the wife, who’d gotten home after we’d had supper.

“… until there was just a big, steaming pile of liquid!” Doug said as I pulled the bowl out of the microwave.

“More like a puddle,” I said.

“That’s why I said ‘of liquid,'” Doug answered. I didn’t pursue it, because I was busy getting a napkin and a spoon for the chana masala. As I handed it to my wife, I said, “OK, here’s your hot, steaming pile of–“

“Oh, don’t be disgusting!” she blurted out.

“What are you talking about? Here’s your hot, steaming pile of chana masala!”

So did my wife have a point? Is the string steaming pile of enough to warrant disgust? Clearly, it was for her, but that was with some vivid priming from Doug and me. The association was strong enough for Doug to forgo the word puddle to call the spreading brown mess on the waiting room floor a “steaming pile of liquid.” In a thread on the online Word Reference Forum, one participant asks what steaming pile means, and another, “In many situations the ‘steaming pile’ alluded to is a steaming pile of bullshit, horseshit or just shit,” and another adds, “If the author of that had only said My life is a steaming pile, I’m fairly sure that most native English-speakers would have easily been able to supply the missing [of shit].”

A COCA search for “steaming [pile] of”, looking for the most common words within four words to the right, brings in only about two dozen hits, but seven of them are guano, excrement, scat, poop, dung, and shit. COCA will let you sort results by mutual information, which is a statistical measure of how closely associated with each other two words are. In the extreme case, if the probability of word B appearing after word A is no different than the probability that word B will appear anywhere, then these words’ probabilities are independent, and their mutual information will be 0. On the other hand, if word A always occurs with word B, and word B always occurs with word A, their mutual information will be much higher. According to the COCA tutorial page, a mutual information score of above 3.0 generally indicates “semantic bonding”.

Steaming pile(s) of and shit within four words of each other have mutual information 9.48. Pretty good, given the 3.0 threshold, right? But in fact, there’s only one example with shit:

They’ve left a steaming pile of dog shit on my desk, and now it belongs to me.

The word that yielded the highest mutual information score was actually another singleton hit, roadkill, at 15.87. Guano followed closely, with 15.85.

For comparison, I did a search with a string that I thought would have higher mutual information with shit, namely lying sack of, limited to words that occurred immediately to the right. That got eight hits, four of them with shit, one with manure, one with (censored), and two left incomplete. The mutual information with shit was 14.18, more than the 9.48, but still less than the score for steaming pile(s) of followed by guano. It just goes to show you can’t jump to conclusions.

But back to our steaming piles, I found that the steaming pile of chana masala I served up to my wife was not without precedent in the Corpora of Contemporary and Historical American English and in Google Books:

  • His last meal was more than twenty-four hours behind him, and all he could think about were steaming piles of roast boar and warm ale, right from the goat’s teat. (2009)
  • there was a steaming pile of peas and a casserole of sweet potatoes with broiled marshmallows on top. (1995)
  • The pot had been drained of water and dumped on its side; they sat close to the steaming pile of potatoes, hunched over, ripping off the salt-stained skins with small knives. (1957)
  • They returned to the tent just as the last streak of daylight disappeared from the western horizon and at once set about the consumption of a steaming pile of boiled mutton and huge bowls of dough strings floating in mutton broth. (1918)
  • Isidora saw that Bill had the food he liked best for breakfast; a steaming pile of buckwheat cakes trimmed round the edges with crisp brown lace, and oozing syrup at every pore. (1910)
  • It was not the time — just after tea — to eat an immense dish of coos-coosoo, or a steaming pile of hot mutton and raisins, cooked in oil,
    (1903)
  • “Naw, Amy ain’t took wid no spell no sich a thing,” interrupted Caroline, as she placed another steaming pile of eggs on Sam’s plate. (1886)
  • he will hereafter be held in grateful remembrance around many a steaming pile of Saur-Kraut and Speck. (1869)
  • they rushed upon the steaming piles of meat like half-famished wolves.
    (1848)

I also found, in the first half of the 20th century and earlier, steaming piles of rubble:

  • in no more time than it takes for a tangle of tubes and drums to fly up and fall down again, the whole plant is a steaming pile of brick, mortar (1937)
  • The wall crashed down, demolishing the office completely and leaving nothing but a steaming pile of bricks and debris. (1917)
  • the lovely mother, who had led him to behold her son as he slept, at this moment a blackened corse under the steaming pile [of a burned-down house] before him. (1832)

The earliest example I’ve found in which steaming pile refers to excrement is from 1890, in Light on the Cloud, or Hints of Comfort for Hours of Sorrow, by Minot Judson Savage:

It is not the fault of the sunlight that, beneath its shining, a bed of flowers lifts up its fragrance to God, and that, beneath the same shining, a steaming pile of filth reeks offence and disease in all nostrils.

And on that inspirational note, I leave you to your own steaming piles, whatever their composition.

Posted in Doug, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo, The wife | 7 Comments »

Picking Up a Prescription

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2011

My wife called me one morning this week, asking if I could pick up a prescription for her. As it happened, I was on my way to our grocery store and pharmacy anyway, so I said sure.

“It’s at Dr. M’s office,” she continued.

So much for combining errands. I said “OK,” but found the situation a bit odd. There have been times when I’ve picked up a prescription at a doctor’s office instead of the pharmacy, but only when the doctor was a veterinarian. This medicine must be something pretty unusual for the doctor himself to have to provide it.

I finished the grocery trip, and in the afternoon I went to the doctor’s office. Exactly what kind of powerful drug did these people have for my wife? The receptionist walked to an accordion folder, reached into a slot near the back, and pulled out … a slip of paper! Signed by the doctor, with the name of a medicine on it!

Suddenly I remembered that doctors often provide patients such pieces of paper, and that these pieces of paper are called prescriptions. Of course, when you give your pharmacist one of these papers with the name of a medicine on it, and they sell you a bottle of that actual medicine, that’s a prescription, too. I’ve got to learn to keep those straight.

Posted in Polysemy, The wife | 2 Comments »

Father’s Day Polysemy

Posted by Neal on June 20, 2011

Yesterday I sat and opened the Father’s Day gifts (yes, plural) that the wife and the boys had gotten me. Most of them were shirts and shorts. Doug was saying he thought at least one of those boxes would have been clothes that were just disguising the real gift, but no, every box with clothes in it was actually a gift of clothes. I explained that clothes really were a good gift.

“Do you know what happens when people don’t give you clothes as gifts?” I asked.

“What?”

“It means you have to go out and buy them yourself. Or if you don’t, the clothes you have keep getting more worn out and crummy-looking, and then you have to buy more clothes yourself anyway.”

Yes, for me, a gift of clothes is as much a gift of time as a gift of stuff to wear. But as it turned out, my family had one more gift after all the clothes were stacked on the table and the wrapping was lying on the floor with cats crawling underneath it.

“Doug got annoyed with me,” my wife said, “when I kept saying things like, ‘Let’s give your dad his Father’s Day.'”

“I’d say, ‘Do you mean Father’s Day presents?'” Doug explained.

“Ah, nice polysemy!” I said.

My wife picked up again. “But Adam, meanwhile, would say things like, ‘After Father’s Day, we’re going out to lunch?'”

Wow, even more polysemy! In addition to referring to the day itself, my family was using Father’s Day to refer not only to gifts given for the occasion, but to the giving and receiving of those gifts, too. And most interesting of all, I thought, was that it wasn’t Adam, on the autism spectrum, who was insisting on the more literal meaning, but Doug. Adam was extending the polysemy even further than his mother was taking it.

Posted in Adam, Doug, Polysemy, The wife | 1 Comment »

Unspoken Messages

Posted by Neal on June 6, 2011

In my last post, I talked about going out for dinner and a movie with the family. The movie was X-Men: First Class, and it was really good! Doug and I both liked how the plot mixed historical events with the fictional — and not just ordinary fictional events, but supernatural ones. Like reading the most satisfying books by Michael Crichton or Tim Powers, there are things you know are fact, and things you know are fiction, but some things straddle the line between plausibility and fantasy so well that you don’t know quite where the seam is. I learned somewhere that the literary name for this genre is low fantasy (as opposed to high fantasy, where the entire setting is made up). On a language-related note, you get to hear German, French, Spanish, and Russian spoken in the movie, in addition to English of course. But I’m pretty sure (as sure as I can be without actually fact-checking) that the adjective bad-ass didn’t exist in 1962.

Anyway, the way we happened to be on this night out is that last Thursday night, my wife was browsing the web while sipping her favorite after-work drink: club soda with cranberry juice and a big wedge of lime. As I was loading the dishwasher, she said, “Hey, they liked X-Men.”

“Who? EW?” I asked. I came over to the couch to look over her shoulder.

“‘James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are–‘” she began, handing me her empty tumbler. As I took it back to the dishwasher, she continued reading the review.

“So are you saying,” I asked, “that instead of Sunday night videos and homemade pizza, we should go have supper at Boston’s and then see X-Men at the Arena Grand? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” (Friday night was out of the question, since Adam and I would be at the Cub Scout campout. More on that in the next post.)

“Wow, that’s quite a detailed message you’re getting there,” she said.

“Well, we’ve been married going on 15 years, so I’m pretty good at picking up on this stuff, you know.”

“Really?”

“Yep!”

“Well, there’s one unspoken message that you didn’t pick up on.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“I wasn’t giving you my glass to put in the dishwasher.”

I was confused. “Huh?”

She pointed toward the dishwasher where I had just loaded her glass with all the dirty dishes. “I wanted a refill.”

Posted in Movies, Pragmatics, The wife | 2 Comments »

Linguistics Is for the Birds!

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2010

“I’m so excited that you found lard!” my wife said. “I’ve been looking all over the place for it! How did you find it?”

“Well, first of all,” I said, “our lives must be pretty pathetic if this is what counts as excitement. But anyway, it occurred to me to look in the Mexican food aisle.” Which was true. I’d suddenly remembered a tortilla recipe that came with a tortilla maker my wife and sons gave me for my birthday a few years ago, and the recipe called for lard. And there it was, in the Mexican aisle, labeled in both English and Spanish (manteca). But before I remembered the tortilla recipe, I tried to find lard in the baking supplies aisle.

“Luckily, there was a guy stocking groceries in that aisle,” I said. “But I hesitated to ask him about lard…”

“Why?” asked Doug.

“Well, he was kinda fat,” I told him. “But it was OK. I just said, ‘Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but is this the aisle for lard? And I really am talking about lard, I’m not trying to insult you or anything.'”

“Oh, Neal, you didn’t,” my wife said, in a tone of dismay.

“No, I just said, ‘Is this the right aisle for lard?’ and he pointed me to the shortening, and I said it had to be lard, and he didn’t know where it would be after all.”

“I know some people who would have done it like you said,” my wife said. “They’ll say, ‘No offense, but…’ and then you knock yourself out trying to figure out what they were saying that they thought you might take offense at.”

Wow. I’m glad I don’t know those people. Anyway, the reason my wife wanted lard so badly is that she and Doug are still into watching and feeding birds, enough that it has occurred to her that it would be more economical to make their own suet blocks than to buy the pre-made ones, and the recipe she found calls for lard.

Refilling the bird feeders has also become one of Doug’s regular chores, although it’s an easy one to forget when there’s snow on the ground and it gets dark early. After a couple of days of asking Doug to refill the feeders and finding out at bedtime that it hadn’t been done, my wife spoke to Doug before school one morning:

“OK, Doug,” she began. “When you get home this afternoon…”

“Yes?” said Doug.

“…while it’s still light outside,” my wife continued.

“Yes?” said Doug.

“Go out and fill the bird feeders.”

I was listening while I packed Doug’s and Adam’s lunches. “You know, Doug,” I said, “This just goes to show how one little word can change a sentence into a fragment.” I was remembering our previous discussions on this topic, and knew a teachable moment when I heard one.

“‘You get home this afternoon’ — you, subject; get home this afternoon, predicate,” I explained. “‘When you get home this afternoon’ — you know there’s more. ‘It’s still light outside’ — sentence. ‘While it’s still light outside’ — you know the main sentence is still on the way. ‘Go out and fill the bird feeders’ — now there’s your sentence!”

My wife laughed, and Doug just kind of shook his head as he cleared his breakfast dishes. That was probably the last either of them thought about it for the rest of the day. But I kept thinking about it, and at supper that night, I had to make a retraction.

“You know how I said the when and the while told you that there was more to come?” I asked Doug. “Well, maybe not. Your mom could have just said, ‘This afternoon, you’ll get home from school': a complete sentence. But you’d still have said, ‘Yes?’ And if she’d said, ‘It’ll still be light out,’ that’s a full sentence, but you’d have still been waiting for her to get to the point.”

I didn’t get into stuff about the Maxim of Relevance, or a rising intonation at the end of a sentence instead of a falling one. I didn’t even explain the main lesson I took away: a reminder that what qualifies as “a complete thought” syntactically, maybe even semantically, is not always the same as a complete thought in terms of a real conversation.

“You’re learning how I operate!” my wife said.

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Quantity and Relevance, The wife | 8 Comments »

Nick Impersonates Charlie

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2010

Doug and Adam like visiting their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Mark, because they have a flat-coated black retriever named Charlie that Doug and Adam like to play with. They’ll usually bring him a new toy, and Charlie is always eager to get it. He comes bounding up to the car, sniffing at us as we get out. My wife will pull the new toy out of the bag it’s in, and throw it into the yard for Charlie. He’s so used to the routine that it caused a problem one time when we didn’t bring a new toy — but did bring one of Doug and Adam’s stuffed animals. Charlie was so excited and so eager to get to work on that stuffed animal that we had to hide it in a bedroom drawer.

“Aw, Charlie,” the wife and sons were saying, “That’s not a toy!”

“Ooh, goody, let me have my new toy!” Carrie was saying, speaking as Charlie. Doug, Adam, my wife, and I sometimes put words into Charlie’s mouth, too. The Charlie voice is somewhat like the voice of the Abominable Snowman in the Looney Toons cartoons, the one who picks up Daffy Duck and says, “I will hug him and squeeze him, and call him George.”

I was reminded of this when I listened to Deborah Tannen’s invited talk at the LSA conference. She’s done a study on how family members will use other family members in order to change the tone of a tense interaction. For example, I’ve sometimes asked Doug or Adam, “What would your mother say if she knew you were walking around in the cold house with no socks or slippers on?” It’s kind of a weenie’s way out to fob off the sock requirement on my wife, but hey, it makes me look a little less like the bad guy. And besides, she really would tell them to put on socks or slippers!

Other times, people will actually imitate the other person’s voice, instead of just invoking them like I did. And it turns out that a really popular target of this kind of ventriloquizing is the family pet. Tannen had several examples of people doing this, and even wrote a separate paper just on this more specific topic, called “Talking the Dog”.

One of Tannen’s main points about talking in another person’s (or animal’s) voice is that along with the voice comes a whole set of personality traits belonging to the voice’s owner, traits that a speaker can temporarily assume in order to change the power dynamic between them and who they’re speaking to.

It was the point about a voice coming along with certain personality traits that reminded me of the Charlie voice. Trouble comes when we’re back at home, and Doug has the occasion to speak as our cat Nick. When he ventriloquizes Nick, he uses the Charlie voice. My wife can’t abide this. Nick and Charlie have two such different personalities that giving them the same voice is simply unacceptable. It bugged her so much that she even had me create separate voices for Nick and our four other cats. But Doug can’t do the Nick voice, so he’ll still sometimes use the Charlie voice for Nick. “No Charlie voice!” my wife tells him.

Well, maybe he’s not giving Nick Charlie’s voice. Maybe when he imitates Nick, he’s imitating a Nick who’s imitating Charlie! I’ll have to drop this suggestion to Doug and see how it goes over with his mother.

Posted in Adam, Cats, Doug, LSA, Pragmatics, The wife | 7 Comments »

Mayonnaise and Margarine

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2009

It happened again. My wife asked me to hand her the mayonnaise, and I did. As soon as I did, I sensed her exasperation, and realized I’d messed up again.

“I mean, Miracle Whip,” she said, handing back the mayo. I handed her the Miracle Whip, and as she spooned it into the bowl of tuna, I knew she was wondering how, after thirteen years of marriage, I could still be thinking she wanted mayonnaise when she asked for mayonnaise.

Well, I’m sorry! Just because it’s white and you spread it on bread for your sandwiches doesn’t make it mayonnaise. I know from unpleasant personal experience that mayonnaise and Miracle Whip are quite different things.

Still and all, I guess my wife figures I can learn to accommodate this feature of her vocabulary. After all, she learned long ago that I want margarine when I ask for the butter.

Posted in Food-related, Lexical semantics, The wife, Variation | 14 Comments »

Crack the Door

Posted by Neal on October 5, 2009

My first understanding of "crack the door"Sometimes at night, my wife will want to make sure that Doug and Adam aren’t woken up by the noise coming from our bedroom, so she’ll have me shut the door. We don’t want one of the boys walking in on us when we’re busy watching a movie or some of those TV shows I mentioned in my last post.

Still, she doesn’t want the door completely shut: She wants to be able to hear if Doug or Adam has any trouble, and of course the cats need to be able to wander in and out. Here’s where it gets strange. When she makes her request, she asks me to “crack the door” — when the door is already wide open.

I long ago got used to the idiom crack the door/window meaning “open it just a crack”, and not “damage it by putting a crack in it”. The OED has this as chiefly a US usage, with the earliest attestation from 1899. But in my English, you can only crack doors and windows that are shut, not ones that are open. The crack has to be the appearance of a gap, not the narrowing of an existing one. So who else out there can crack doors and windows that are already open?

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Posted in Lexical semantics, The wife, Variation | 9 Comments »

 
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