Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Doug’s Lexical Semantics

Posted by Neal on November 7, 2004

As with other kids, almost all of Doug’s vocabulary consists of words he’s picked up from context. For most of them, I reckon his definitions are the same as mine and other people’s. But for some of them, his definitions are slightly different. The definitions aren’t different enough to prompt a correction any time he uses these words; most of the time they stay camouflaged. But every now and then one of those words will break cover, when Doug uses it with a meaning far enough away from ours that we realize he’s been going along for weeks, maybe months, with a different concept for the word than what we thought he had. (For example, his use of like to report someone’s state of mind.)

One that came up a few months ago was Golden Age. We’d been renting a lot of the videos in the “Golden Age of Looney Tunes” series, since they were free rentals. Not knowing exactly how long ago these cartoons had been made, Doug had no clue that you could talk about cartoons made in certain years, and judge during which span of years the best cartoons had been made, and call it the Golden Age.

I realized this a few weeks later, when Doug and I had individually played our parts of a duet in a piano primer, and were trying to play our parts together. It sounded pretty bad, and Doug said, “It’s the golden age of mistakes when you and me play together.” To him, Golden Age of X just meant “a lot of X’s in one place.”

Generator is a more recent example. Doug used this one again and again over a few weeks before it dawned on me that his meaning and mine weren’t the same. He uses the word when he explains the anatomy of Lego robots that he builds: here is the control room, the jets, the jet adjustors, here is a generator, and over here are two more generators. When I asked him what a generator was, it turned out to be just some crucial device on a robot, such that when you destroyed all of them, you could defeat the robot. This understanding is actually not too bad, given that everything he knows about robots comes from Sonic TV shows and video games, where the robots are all under the control of the evil Dr. Robotnik, and must be destroyed for the good of the world.

These robots in the video games are typical examples of what Doug calls bosses. I assumed this was another of his misunderstandings, except that he hadn’t heard anyone that I knew of complaining about their boss enough to induce a meaning of “adversary” for boss. He told me he’d gotten the term from his cousin, so I figured maybe his cousin’s dad had been complaining about bosses enough for Doug’s cousin to pick up the skewed meaning.

But as it turns out, this is one case where Doug has picked up the meaning perfectly from his fellow language users, and I was the odd one out. I’ve learned from a few Google searches that boss is the standard term for serious enemies in video games, whom (or which) you have to defeat before you can go any farther. Video game designer Greg Costikyan confirms that the term’s been around since at least the early 90s, and the guy at the local video game store says he’s been hearing it since even before then.

How about that? Doug’s teaching me how to speak English!


4 Responses to “Doug’s Lexical Semantics”

  1. Anonymous said

    Your posts give me great pleasure because they are fresh & charming and so free of political baggage/garbage. What a welcome relief!

  2. Anonymous said

    How do kids learn about good and evil, right and wrong today? For many I guess it is still from their parents and the church. But now it seems that video games are a big source of their early exposure to morality. It seems from the link you provided that Sonic always defeats the evil-doers like Dr. Robotnik. What would happen to our kid’s psyche if Sonic were killed and the world enslaved? Many think that the reality is that most of world is enslaved by poverty, famine, disease and oppressive rulers. What is the impact on kids of perpetuating this hero-saves-humanity-from-villians way of thinking? We all can’t grow up to be super heros.
    Doesn’t it teach the idea that humans are really powerless to effect change in the world and that we have to look for a leading man (Bush, Reagan, T.R., der Fuhrer) to do it for us? I hope that Doug & Adam can learn that being a strong person doesn’t mean leaping off tall buildings in a single bound or slaying dragons and that if he/she can’t do that then they are nothing more than a helpless lamb or a cog in a machine without a soul.

    I also hope that in addition to paying close attention to your kids language acquistion that you are also paying close attention to how their character is developing and what seems to be influencing its development for better or worse. You’ve done a little of that already by reporting on Doug’s reaction to being called names by a playmate and how you and your wife consoled him. Language is more obvious than character but if you could blend linguistic commentary with other aspects of your kid’s emotional growth and progress in an often cruel and heartless world then I’d be interested in hearing about it.

  3. Anonymous said

    I’ve used “boss” in the video game sense since the late 1980s, and I suspect that it has been in use at least as far back as 1984. In my entire life, “boss” has always been an acceptable word for the end-of-stage enemy that must be defeated. I cannot think of another single term to describe such a foe.

  4. Rob said

    I enjoy reading through your blog. By the way, if you are interested in talking about a link exchange with me at, please let me know.

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