Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Don’t Know Which End Is Front

Posted by Neal on October 11, 2004

Over at Language Log, there’s been a lively discussion over whether or not it makes sense to refer to bus routes that make a loop as eastbound or westbound, instead of, say, clockwise or counterclockwise. The same problem comes up when circular directions are referred to as right (for clockwise) or left (for counterclockwise). “Righty tighty, lefty loosey” is the mnemonic for how to tighten or loosen most nuts, screws, and bolts, but when you’re turning a nut to the right (i.e. clockwise), really it’s only the top part that’s going to the right. The bottom is going to the left. And the left is going up. And the right is going down. And all the parts in between are going at other angles.

It only makes sense if you look at it from the point of view of the hand that’s operating the tool. When you turn a screwdriver clockwise, your thumb is moving to the right, as are the other fingers, except maybe for the pinky, which pretty much moves straight down. Since you can’t rotate your forearm 360 degrees, there is no leftward movement except when you let go to get your hand in position for the next turn of the screwdriver.

On the subject of east, west, right, and left, I don’t like hearing people say things like, “Indiana is to the left of Ohio.” No, that’s only if I’m facing north. And Canada is not above the US–go outside, look up, and see for yourself.

This all reminds me of another difference in thinking about directions that caused confusion for a while when my wife or I would be shopping with the kids. For me, the front of the shopping cart is the part farthest from the handle. For my wife, the front is the part you push. I’m following the model of things that move: The part that arrives first is the front. (Except for octopuses and other cephalopods, I suppose.) She’s following the paradigm of refrigerators, computers, TVs, washing machines, ovens, etc.: The part that faces you is the front.

Doug used to get caught in the crossfire, at least until he got too big to fit in the built-in seat. I’d say he had to ride in the back, and he’d be trying to climb into the front. The solution? Now I do the grocery shopping at night.

4 Responses to “I Don’t Know Which End Is Front”

  1. Anonymous said

    “Over at Language Log, there’s been a lively discussion over whether or not it makes sense….”

    Surely you didn’t really mean to write “whether or not….” A literal-minded fellow like you doubtless meant to write “whether…,” as the “or not” is superfluous in the context of that sentence. I refer you to the excellent article titled “Avoiding the Curse of Whetherornot” at page 41 of “The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing,” vol. 6 (1996 – 1997).

  2. Anonymous said

    How about if you move a meeting “one day forward.” I always think it means forward in time, like if you had a time machine, so if you move it forward from the 11th, it goes to the 12th. Other people say that would be moving it backward. I think they’re backward.

  3. […] suddenly realized: With grocery carts, I may not know which end is front, but with desks, I don’t know which way is up! As I wrote a few years back, For me, the front […]

  4. […] it for the duration.) The father asked, “Does the line start here?” and I had a brief “I don’t know which end is front!” moment. I guess from the father’s point of view, the beginning of the line corresponds to the […]

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