Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Stop Creating!

Posted by Neal on January 13, 2014

You know, I really liked the first film I saw Shia LaBeouf in, and the second one wasn’t too bad. I was always a bit bugged by the clear misspelling of his last name, which I knew from high school French II should have been LaBoeuf, but I wouldn’t let a petty thing like that cause me to boycott a movie. But I’ve been increasingly incredulous of the unfolding story about LaBeouf and a graphic novelist named Daniel Clowes, and I’m inclined to boycott LaBeouf now. Here’s the recap for those who haven’t been following it:

  1. LaBeouf produced a movie titled Howard Cantour.com.
  2. Daniel Clowes observed that large portions of the dialogue were plagiarized from his book Justin B. Damiano.
  3. LaBeouf apologized on Twitter.
  4. LaBeouf apologized numerous other times on Twitter, plagiarizing other notable apologies.
  5. LaBeouf apologized via a message in skywriting over LA.
  6. LaBeouf then tweeted a storyboard, supposedly for his next movie project, which clearly plagiarized from another of Daniel Clowes’s works.
  7. Clowes’s lawyer sent LaBeouf a cease-and-desist letter demanding that “he must stop all efforts to create and produce another short film that misappropriates Mr. Clowes’ work….”

You can read more about this here, here, and here, but here’s where the story takes a linguistic turn, so this is our stop.

Ben Zimmer emailed me to tell me about how LaBeouf was deliberately misreading the cease-and-desist letter. He sent along a few links that I’ll share. First, here’s an image of the original letter, along with LaBeouf’s edited version:

And here’s another message he delivered via skywriting:

In addition to copping out with the bullshit claim that all authorship is plagiarism, LaBeouf’s carryings-on exemplify two argument techniques that really get under my skin. One is the deliberate cutoff, exemplified in the classic dialogue:

A: Why did you do this?
B: Well, I didn’t think I–
A: That’s right! You didn’t think!

The other is the straw-man technique, which I often get from my sons. Take a demand from your opponent, amp it up to its most extreme, idiotic version, then belittle your opponent for being so naive as to make such an extreme, idiotic demand. In this case, “stop creating a particular kind of thing” becomes “stop creating (anything)”.

Thinking about the syntax of the butchered sentence, though, I wonder if LaBeouf has realized that he can carry his half-ass mis-parsing even further, to arrive at a completely grammatical parse that’s even more to his liking. Here’s the structure of the intended parse:

A conjoined verb

The and is joining the smallest constituents it can join: the verbs create and produce. The shared direct object is another short film that misappropriates the word of Daniel Clowes. But LaBeouf wants to break the connection between create and produce, and have create its own verb phrase, meaning “engage in any kind of creation.” Well, in that case, what do we do with the and? Instead of hooking up the two single verbs, it will have to hook up the next larger constituents: the verb phrases stop all efforts to create and produce another short film…. So the parse would be like this:

Coordinated verb phrases

So if he wanted to, LaBeouf could argue that this letter actually requires him to produce another short film that misappropriates the work of Daniel Clowes. Syntactically, it’s impeccable. Semantically, there’s the problem that the verb produce in the movie-making sense entails creating, so he couldn’t satisfy both requirements. Pragmatically, there’s the oddity of requiring that someone do something that involves lawbreaking (i.e. misappropriation). But hey, it’s about as logical as what he’s been doing already, so what the heck?

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Coordination, Movies, Pragmatics | 5 Comments »

Gerund Movie Titles Revisited

Posted by Neal on January 4, 2014

Tom Hanks will save you!

We had a few friends over near the beginning of Doug and Adam’s winter break. The conversation turned to movies, and my wife said that two movies she really hoped to see over the holidays were American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks.

“I don’t want to see that,” I said. “It’s already got a couple of strikes against it because of the title. It’s another gerund-plus-proper-noun cliche.”

“What, is that ungrammatical?” asked our guest Brian.

“No, it’s grammatical, just lazy and overdone,” I answered, and listed a few of the examples I’ve written about before.

“But it’s been getting good reviews!” my wife said. “Can you just ignore the title?”

“Here’s the thing,” I said, moving aside to let Adam get to the fridge. “Clearly, the producers’taste is not good enough for them to avoid this lame title. So I have to question their artistic judgment in other aspects of the movie.”

“Is this about Saving Mr. Banks again?” asked Adam.

Well, I couldn’t help it. This title is particularly annoying because the gerund is saving. Along with being and finding, that’s the most overdone gerund in this worn-out title template. Worse, Tom Hanks seemed to be making a habit out of starring in movies titled Saving someone, what with Saving Private Ryan from 1998.

Later on, I checked Tom Hanks’s acting credits on IMDB, and found to my surprise that in the 71 entries, Saving Private Ryan and Saving Mr. Banks were the only movies with GPN titles. So the good news is that Tom Hanks usually isn’t associated with gerundially-titled movies. Even so, he’s still in these two, both of them with saving

In a guest script for Grammar Girl a couple of years ago, I talked about two kinds of gerunds, one that behaved more like a verb, and one that behaved more like a noun. I illustrated with this example:

  • the quick defusing of the bomb
  • quickly defusing the bomb

The first kind is the more nounlike gerund. It can take an article (in this example, the); it is modified by an adjective instead of an adverb (quick), and the complement NP the bomb is introduced by an of. This kind of gerund is sometimes called a nominalization.

The second kind is the more verblike gerund. It does not take an article; *the quickly defusing the bomb is ungrammatical. It is modified by an adverb instead of an adjective (quickly); and its complement NP the bomb comes directly afterward, just as it would if we were dealing with a plain form (defuse the bomb) or a tensed form (defuses the bomb).

I hadn’t really thought about this difference when I was thinking about movie titles, but I notice now that the movie titles that drew my attention all involve the verby kind of gerunds. That is, we have Saving Mr. Banks and not The Saving of Mr. Banks. I did a search on IMDB for “the *ing of”, and found only one result, The Rican-ing of the White Boy (2012). An anonymous plot summary explains what Rican-ing is:

What happens when a paternally adopted forty seven year old schmuck from Queens, New York, sets out for the first time to meet his long lost Puerto Rican family, after being raised by a tribe of white people?

However, I know there are at least two more nominalization-style movie title from recent years: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), and The Haunting of Hill House (1999) (though this title came from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 story). I don’t know why it didn’t show up in the search results. If you have some other examples that the search didn’t find, leave a comment.

I wondered what the GPN movie titles would sound like with nominalizations, and started going through the list I’d put in my earlier blog post: The Finding of Nemo, The Chasing of Amy, The Driving of Miss Daisy… Then I realized that some of these titles couldn’t be rephrased as a nominalization:

  • *The Becoming of Colette (1991)
  • *The Becoming of Mozart (1998)
  • *The Being of John Malkovich (1999)
  • *The Being of Julia (2004)
  • *The Being of Flynn (2012) [a new one!]

It seems that linking verbs that take an NP complement don’t work as nominalizations. This is probably something that syntacticians have known about for a long time, but I haven’t found it in CGEL, or in a classic paper by Noam Chomsky, “Remarks on Nominalization“. If anyone knows of research that has been done on this, I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, since I’ve moved beyond gerund+proper noun titles and into nominalizations, I might as well finish with a nod to nominalizations without an of phrase following them. These are the mark of a horror movie: The Shining, The Haunting, The Howling, The Fruiting, and others.

It’s late now, though, so as I told Doug and Adam earlier tonight, it’s time for the going-to of bed.

Posted in Movies, Syntax | 2 Comments »

Interdental L for Emphasis

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2013

“Who put Blackfish on our Netflix queue?” my wife asked.

“Oh, that was me. Entertainment Weekly recommended it.”

She didn’t want to watch it, though, so I ended up watching the documentary on killer whales in captivity myself, while I wrapped Christmas presents last week. It was a well-done film, and it was short enough that I even watched the DVD extras while I finished wrapping. They included an interview with marine biologist Dr. Naomi Rose, in a segment called “The Truth About Wild Whales.”

At the end of the interview, Rose was asked whether she thought Sea World should be shut down. She finessed the answer by saying that as a business, Sea World would do what its customers demanded, and offered this advice about how customers could make their wishes known:

They have to [pause] write a letter. [pause] Change their vacation plans. [pause] Let Sea World know they changed their vacation plans.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "letter".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “letter”.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "Let".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “Let”.

I had to put down the scissors and the wrapping paper and rewind the video to the beginning of that statement to watch and listen to it more closely. There it was! In the first sentence, Rose pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of the word letter in the way it’s described in texts on English phonetics: with the tip of her tongue behind her front teeth. But in the third sentence, she pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of let with the tip of her tongue between her top and bottom front teeth, in the same position as it would be if she were pronouncing /θ/ (as in thick) or /ð/ (as in this). In other words, she was pronouncing it as an interdental sound rather than an alveolar one.

This is a pronunciation that I learned about about 10 years ago from some college students in southern central Ohio. Now that I think more about it, I imagine that probably most English speakers pronounce /l/ this way when it comes right before /θ/ or /ð/, as in healthy or all this. I blogged about this pronunciation back in 2005, and linked to a post on the Linguist List on the subject. Since that link no longer works, here’s a fresh one. In the post, Mark Jones sums up responses from other list members, some of whom note that the interdental pronunciation seems to be used for emphasis, or when a speaker is hyperarticulating. That, I think, is what’s going on in Rose’s interview. Before she says let Sea World know, she pauses slightly and leans forward; and as she says it, she speaks at a higher volume.

Whether or not you’re interested in Dr. Rose’s interdental and alveolar /l/s, I recommend watching Blackfish. I wish I’d seen it before taking Adam to Sea World in San Antonio when we went down for my sister’s wedding in May.

Posted in Movies, Variation, What the L | 3 Comments »

Blue Christmas Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2013

Looking through the community newspaper, I saw an announcement of the various Christmas-related services that a local church was having. One of them caught my eye:

A tradition from Canada?

I liked the creative use of the song title “Blue Christmas” to name a service for, I assumed, people grieving for departed loved ones or maybe with serious health problems. Pretty clever name, I thought, for a service that I hadn’t heard of before but which sounded like it filled a need. Then I looked across to the facing page of the newspaper, saw another listing of Christmas services from another church, and among the services, saw listed another Blue Christmas service. So apparently this wasn’t an original naming, but a more widespread thing. On the American Dialect Society email list, Dan Goncharoff found two attestations from 1998, both from Canada, and both describing it as a service “for those grieving and in pain at Christmas.” If you’ve heard of Blue Christmas services earlier than that, let me know in the comments.

However, that’s not what I really wanted to comment on. I was more interested in the description in the newspaper:

for those whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

It’s another example of prepositional cannibalism! The larger phrase is basically for certain people. And who are those certain people? They are people such that

Christmas is a difficult time for them to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Turning that into a relative clause, we would expect

those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Putting it all together, we should have

for those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

But the writer, I suspect, second-guessed themself and figured there must be something wrong with the lineup of for those for. In the earlier post that I linked to, I noted that the two prepositions had to be the same, but actually, that might not be true. In the widely mangled proverb

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

the of at the beginning is often lopped off. Why the of instead of the to? I don’t know, but I notice that in these two examples, the preposition that survives is the one that points to the beneficiary role: the person who is given much, the person the service is intended for.

They seem to have left off an S here

On an unrelated note, for a few hours after I read the announcement, I had “Blue Christmas” running through my head, and not just any version, but the version from Elvis’s Christmas Album, including the wah-wah-wah-waah ostinato that was drilled into my head through Dad’s numerous playings of the album over the years. What’s the linguistic connection? Also on that album is “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” which I first heard at age 4, when Dad had just bought the album and was playing it for us. “Listen, Neal-o, he wants Santa to bring his baby back,” he told me. At that age, I knew nothing of the lexical ambiguity of baby; I just wondered why jolly old Santa had taken away this man’s child.

Posted in Christmas songs, Christmas-related, Relative clauses | 1 Comment »

Changing History

Posted by Neal on November 30, 2013

So, about that news-related idea for a post that my mother had last week

Another of the reporters talking about the Kennedy assassination said something along the lines of:

Fifty years ago today, Lee Harvey Oswald changed history.

Mom’s observation (eagerly seconded by Dad): No, he didn’t. You can’t change history unless you have a time machine, and even then you can’t do it unless we’re living in a Back to the Future-style universe instead of an Anubis Gates-style universe.

That last observation was my contribution to the conversation. Mom’s complaint has occurred to me before, when I’ve heard the phrase. I haven’t blogged about it, because all I’ve had to say about it is what I just said. I would have categorized it under “You’re so literal!” and said how in contexts outside of science fiction and theoretical physics, change history is shorthand for change the course of history.

Now that I think about it, though, why should <I>change the course of history</i> get any closer to the desired meaning than change history? Isn’t that just shorthand for something like change the course of how future history would most likely have turned out, had you not intervened? Or to put it more concisely, make history? So, change history, make history, synonyms.

But one video put this topic on my to-be-blogged list, where it was then kicked to the top by Mom’s observation. The video, sent to me by my Uncle Ricky, is about the Boeing CHAMP missiles, which are designed to use a microwave pulse to disable all electronics in a target area. It’s about a successful test flight in Utah last August. “Today we made science fiction science fact,” said Keith Coleman, the CHAMP program manager. At the end of the video, the narrator says that Boeing and Air Force researchers

… are now analyzing data and telemetry from this flight, which not only made history, but stands to change it as well.

What? Not only … but … what do they mean? I think this commenter on the article got it right:

Sorry, I must’ve missed the bit describing its time travel abilities.  Bloody reporters speaking out of their a*se!

BTTF timeline by mysticalpha

BTTF timeline by mysticalpha

Posted in Ambiguity, You're so literal! | 1 Comment »

A Handful of Language Links

Posted by Neal on November 26, 2013

Learn to read Korean in 15 minutes, in comic form, by Ryan Estrada. (Hat tip to All Things Linguistic.)

Written by psycholinguist Jessica Love, Psycho-Babble is the Thursday flavor of the Daily Scholar column, which is part of Phi Beta Kappa’s online magazine American Scholar. In what I take to be a misguided attempt to be timeless, none of the posts have dates on them, but if they come out every Thursday, this column seems to have been going for about a year and a half. I’ve been browsing through the columns, and have enjoyed all the ones I’ve read. But I’m linking to this one, on the past tense of irregular verbs like pet, because I’ve written about this topic a few times. (Incidentally, I guess I shouldn’t complain about the use of the word blog to refer to both blogs and blog posts, if column can refer to both the column space that a writer fills, and the individual pieces they fill it with.  But it still sounds wrong to me!)

Michael Erard wants to create the online Sports Illustrated of linguistics. He’s calling it Schwa Fire, and has started a Kickstarter campaign to launch it. As of today, there are 13 days left in the campaign, and it’s 75% of the way toward the $25,000 goal. I’ve made a modest pledge, and invite you language enthusiasts to do the same.

From James Harbeck, a history of click sounds in African languages.

Just in time for both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, for the only time in your lifetime, Nancy Friedman briefs us on the stupid-sounding but surprisingly interesting word Thanksgivukkah.

Of course, if it’s language link collections done right that you want, Stan’s the man to see, as always.

Posted in Linkfests | 4 Comments »

Adverbial Nouns in the News

Posted by Neal on November 22, 2013

Listening to the various news stories observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I heard one reporter talking about a commemoration going on in Dallas. She said,

The ceremonies will take place at the very location he was killed.

In my grammar, location doesn’t work this way. I can say either of the following:

  1. the location in/at which he was killed
  2. the location where he was killed

The clause he was killed ___ contain a prepositional-phrase gap (shown with an underscore) where you might ordinarily expect at that place, or in that place, or maybe just there. This gap corresponds to the relative phrase in/at which or the relative adverb where. Somewhat less good are:

  1. the location that he was killed in/at
  2. the location he was killed in/at

In these phrases, the clause he was killed in/at ___ contains a gap where you’d ordinarily expect an object of the preposition in or at, and this gap corresponds to the relativizer that in (3). Or there’s no relative pronoun at all, as in (4). But what definitely doesn’t work in my grammar is modifying location with a relative clause that begins with that or the null relative pronoun, and contains a prepositional-phrase gap. For me, the only word that is allowed to do this is place:

  1. the place that he was killed
  2. the place he was killed

I might also accept spot, but not location (or corner, either). Even though these words are all synonyms, only place has the ability to go with these relative clauses that contain a prepositional-phrase gap. In other words, place is the only adverbial noun among these three. (For an example of place used as both an adverbial noun and an ordinary noun simultaneously, see this post about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

It turns out that Dad, too, had a brush with adverbial nouns today, in the news coverage of the assassination semicentennial. He called me to say that he and Mom each had an idea for a blog post for me, and his contribution was from the front page of the Houston Chronicle, which referred to November 22, 1963 as

a day the world changed.

Day, like place, doesn’t need a relative adverb like when, or a relative phrase like in which or at which, when it’s modified by a relative clause with a prepositional-phrase gap. That’s why Don McLean can sing about the day the music died instead of having to phrase it in one of these ways:

  1. the day on which the music died
  2. the day when the music died
  3. the day that the music died on
  4. the day the music died on

But it’s easier to parse this kind of relative clause if you have a verb, such as die, that forces you to imagine a prepositional-phrase gap after it. Because die is an intransitive verb, you’re not expecting it to have a direct object, so you don’t parse the music died as containing a noun-phrase gap. Change, on the other hand, can take a direct object, so the first interpretation that came to Dad’s mind, and to mine, was the one in which the world changed the day of November 22, 1963, even though it was clear that the intended meaning was “a day on which the world changed” or “a day when the world changed”.

And as for Mom’s news-related blog post idea? Well, it’s not about adverbial nouns, and it is about something I’d already been considering writing about in a separate post. So separate post it is!

Posted in Adverbial nouns | 4 Comments »

Conditional Imperfection

Posted by Neal on November 15, 2013

“Rocco was doing it again today,” Adam told Doug at supper one night. His classmate Rocco has a habit of making contrarian claims, seemingly just for the purpose of arguing about them. “He was saying that Jews can be atheists.”

Maybe Rocco had some kind of idea that an atheist Jew would be something like a fasting carnivore, or a celibate homosexual (or heterosexual or bisexual), and hadn’t quite grasped the concept of criterial definitions. Or maybe he was thinking of Jew in a more cultural sense, like I just read about in this Wikipedia article. Whatever he had in mind, Doug and Adam weren’t buying it.

Adam tried to explain Rocco’s argument, not very satisfactorily, but that was because of the material he had to work with. He and Doug were laughing as they tried to dissect Rocco’s reasoning.

“You’re a Jew,” Doug said, “if and only if you believe in God!”

Well, you can’t say “if and only if” to a semanticist and expect it to pass unexamined. “So … Muslims are Jews?” I asked.

“No, Dad,” Doug explained. He then summarized for me the concept of only if, concluding, “You’ve out-literaled yourself!”

Later on, I drew a truth table for if and one for only if, and showed them to Doug. He found that, after all, he and I agreed about the meaning of only if. So what’s the difference between only if and if and only if, I asked.

“I don’t think there is one,” Doug said.

I drew up the table for if and only if, and Doug understood it, but in his opinion, in ordinary conversation, if and only if was just an emphatic way of saying “only if”.

“I’m with Doug on this one,” my wife offered. In a casual, dinner-table conversation, I shouldn’t have taken Doug’s if and only if in this technical sense.

Technical sense? This was my first inkling that there was more than one sense!

This weakening of if and only if to mean just only if is an interesting opposite to a pragmatic effect that Mike Geis and Arnold Zwicky named conditional perfection. Here’s the canonical example:

“I’ll give you $5 if you mow the lawn” taken to mean “I’ll give you $5 if and only if you mow the lawn.”

Now, in the opposite direction, we have

“You’re a Jew if and only if you believe in God” to mean “You’re a Jew only if you believe in God.”

I’m not totally convinced it’s real yet, though. I checked the spoken segment of COCA for if and only if and got a measly three hits. For what it’s worth, they all seem to have been used in the technical sense:

  1. Republicans in the house are embarking on their own effort, promising to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling if and only if both Houses of Congress vote for a balanced budget amendment in the coming days.
  2. We simply should never have been in the business of saying to a 16-year-old girl,’ If and only if you have a child out of wedlock, we’ll send you a check in the mail.’
  3. we may have now a normative principle that that action is legitimate if and only if it proceeds on this model through the U.N.

What do you think? Have you used, or heard others use, if and only if to mean only if?

Posted in Conditionals, Doug, Lexical semantics | 9 Comments »

All of Which

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2013

Picture from PeruDelights.com

Picture from PeruDelights.com

Last week was the last football game of the season for Doug’s high school. As such, it was “senior night,” when the seniors on the football team received a pre-game recognition. As I looked on, I heard the announcer say

…our senior players, all of which are donning their uniform for the final time tonight.

All of which?

I know that which hasn’t always been reserved for inanimate things. Just look at the Lord’s Prayer in the King James version of the Bible: “Our Father, which art in heaven….” But I’m not used to hearing it in present-day English. I suspect that the preposition is responsible, because speakers are trying to avoid saying whom but aren’t quite comfortable with saying of who, either. Actually, I was surprised at how much confusion there was on the issue in the answers to this question on EnglishForums.com. One commenter even stated that friends, most of which was “technically correct,” but that he would say friends, most of whom only because he hated the sound of friends, most of which.

In COCA, I looked for sequences of a determiner (like all, some, none) or a number followed by of which, and found about 15,000 hits. Inspecting a few pages of hits, I found which with mostly inanimate antecedents, but I did turn up a few animate whiches:

  • Now you have got a field of candidates, some of which are perceived to be to his right.
  • …the increase has pushed illegal immigrants to the streets, “some of which go on to commit further crimes.”
  • This is what he said in confidence to his friends, one of which went to gossip to Don Honorato…
  • The task recorded by the helicopter’s night view camera was to try find and rescue survivors. Two of which were who were found bobbing in a life raft.
  • Well, but do you think that congressmen, the two of which I just cited, are they capable of moving beyond that calculation?
  • Between 1946 and 1966 more than 2,500,000 immigrants were admitted to Canada, 900,000 of which were sponsored.
  • According to British estimates in February 1949 the total number of former “Palestinians” — those who remained behind and those who fled — was around 900,000 of which 320,000 … now lived in the Jordanian territory in the West Bank or across the Jordan

Four of these are from spoken English, so it’s possible they were speech errors, or whom avoidance. But the other three are from fiction and academic prose, and in the academic stuff I don’t imagine whom avoidance would play a role. So it’s just possible that animate which lives on, at least after prepositions.

That wasn’t the only linguistic surprise last Friday night. One by one, the senior players marched to the middle of the field, as the announcer introduced them, and added “escorted by” and the name of their parents, or a parent. I did a double-take when one player walked out cradling a baby in his right arm.

I mean, really, doesn’t that seem to stretch the definition of escort?

Posted in Lexical semantics, Pronouns | 8 Comments »

Trick or Trunk or Treat

Posted by Neal on October 29, 2013

Creative Commons-licensed image by Tojosan

Creative Commons-licensed image by Tojosan

Two years ago, I wrote about the history of the phrase trick or treat. This year, I’ve become aware of a new variant on trick-or-treating. The online version of the Philadelphia Inquirer summed up the concept in an article last week:

Trunk-or-treat — the All Hallows’ Eve version of tailgating — appears to be increasing in popularity as a new holiday tradition. Adults fill their car trunks with sweets and treats, park en masse in a designated lot, and children trick-or-treat from car to car. (link)

You can find out more about it at Wikipedia, but as you can see, we’re talking about a sanitized and controlled version of trick-or-treating — even more sanitized and controlled than having official trick-or-treating hours determined by the city council. Actually, I guess it’s silly to have that complaint, because when I was writing about trick or treat, I learned that from the very beginning, trick-or-treating was an attempt to sanitize and control an uncomfortably rowdy and anti-authoritarian holiday, and a successful attempt at that. Anyway, on to the linguistics.

I learned about this kind of event a week or two ago from the marquees of two nearby churches. At the one where Adam’s Boy Scout troop meets, the sign announced that last Friday (not Halloween, you’ll note) there would be a “Trunk or Treat”. A few miles away, the other church had a similar announcement, but this one was for a “Trick or Trunk”. So which came first? And which one is more popular now? On the one hand, trunk is phonetically more like trick, with its lax vowel in the nucleus, and the final [k]. On the other hand, trunk is semantically more like treat, as refers to the source of the candy. It’s not a perfect match, of course, but still, it’s functioning to name the alternative to the trick.

Looking into the phrases’ history, I discovered that they’re not quite as recent as I thought. A ProQuest search turned up the earliest attestation I’ve found, from October 1993 in a photo caption in the Edmonton (Alberta) Journal. The event it described was held by a Mormon church, and was called a “trunk or treat”. As for trick or trunk, the earliest hit I’ve found is from 2000, via Google: “I found out about Trick or Trunk last year….” Although this quote hints at an earlier origin, it looks like the “trunk” variant of the phrase in the Wikipedia article probably is the older one. Phonetics wins!

Even so, don’t discount trick or trunk: In a Google web search, I found 388 hits for trunk or treat, and a respectable 290 for trick or trunk. (This is pared down from the original 3 million and 400,000 respective hits that Google claimed to have, before I clicked and clicked to get to the last page of hits, and Google came clean about what it actually found.)

We’ll know that trick-or-trunk-or-treating has truly arrived when stores start selling Halloween-themed trunk liners to cover up the dirt, grime, and grease spots in a typical trunk, and pre-packaged trunk-decorating kits. I wonder…

… well, there you have it. So in the words of author Lenore Skenazy:

Trunk or treat! Trunk or treat! Let’s avoid each house and street!

Posted in Halloween, Kids' entertainment, Phonetics and phonology | 3 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 380 other followers