Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Promising to Suffer, Threatening to Enjoy

Posted by Neal on May 9, 2005

I’ve been reading Doug Alvin’s Swap Shop, a book that I read when I was a kid. Here’s something on page 35 that went right by me when I read it back then, but stood out like a hemorrhoid in a fruit bowl when I read it to Doug:

Alvin had promptly swapped the office-call certificate to Mrs. Throttlemorton, who enjoyed bad health, for a ball of used aluminum foil…[emphasis mine]

Just like I noted in the post from last year, enjoy plus something good just means to have it, but enjoy plus something bad really does mean to enjoy it (for whatever perverse reasons). You get the idea that Mrs. Throttlemorton really does enjoy her bad health.

In the earlier post, I presented enjoy and suffer from as a pair, each used as a synonym for have, but with different connotations. Since then, I’ve learned about another pair of verbs that work similarly. In the literature on Raising verbs, threaten and promise in their sense of “be likely” are sometimes mentioned. Look at these examples:

  • The building is threatening/?promising to collapse.
  • The weather ?threatens/promises to be quite nice.

Again, when you mismatch the verb with the good connotations to the undesired event, the verb reverts to its literal meaning. So in The building is promising to collapse, unless you’re talking about gleeful terrorists watching the news reports on Sept. 11, 2001, you get an animistic reading in which the building is making a promise. (Of course, this kind of reading is also available for the first example, but you don’t feel yourself drawn to it for lack of a more sensible reading.) You get a similarly animate weather in The weather threatens to be quite nice.

One Response to “Promising to Suffer, Threatening to Enjoy”

  1. […] Last year, I wrote about reading Doug a book I’d read when I was his age and held onto all these years. At that time I found an unusual usage of the word enjoy where I’d have expected suffer from. Now I’m reading the same book aloud to Adam, with Doug listening in and keeping his spoilers to himself. And what do you know–I’ve found another linguistically interesting quotation in the book. Here it is: In the another corner they’d found a creeper, which [Tubby had left behind], and [was particularly helpful].(Clifford B. Hicks, Alvin’s Swap Shop, p. 32) […]

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