Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

We Don’t Know

Posted by Neal on June 13, 2005

Semantic Compositions tells about buying a single congratulatory balloon for his wife’s graduation from med school, and answering “No” when she asked him if he had bought any balloons. He thought he was answering in a misleading but nevertheless truthful way, but now he’s seen and acknowledged the error of his ways. His answer reminded me of that episode of the Simpsons, when a boy explains to a young Homer Simpson why some other Homer can join the No Homers Club but Homer Simpson can’t: “It says ‘No Ho-mers.’ We’re allowed to have one.” His story also reminds me of my wife’s and my own misleading response to a question we didn’t want to answer. It was back in 1998…

My wife was pregnant with the person we now call Doug. Family would ask us, “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?” and we’d say, “We don’t know.” Only after several months did one of my wife’s friends think to follow up by asking her, “Do you know?”

When asked this question, my wife confessed: Yes, she did know. She’d had to have an amnio done, so if we wanted, the doctor could tell us the baby’s gender along with the other results. She wanted. Neal did not. So she found out, he didn’t, and their agreed-upon stance was, “We don’t know the baby’s gender.” (Misleading, yes; pragmatically uncooperative, yes; but true all the same.) That way, none of her family could coerce her into giving out the information, which they could then blab to Neal out of carelessness or malice. Luckily, her friend was a decent sort, and didn’t press any further, so our secret was safe. I didn’t find out Doug was a boy until he made his appearance and peed on the doctor’s hand.

4 Responses to “We Don’t Know”

  1. Funny — I remember this story, but I thought it was *you* who knew and your wife who didn’t. And what I liked best about the story was your ingenious plan to make sure you didn’t accidentally leak the secret to her (or, apparently, the reverse): you alternated weeks referring to the impending arrival as ‘he’ or ‘she’. That way, if the parent-in-the-know ever accidentally used the correct gender in an off-week, they could claim it was just an error in remembering which week it was. Did I remember that part of the story correctly?

  2. Neal said

    Except for who knew and who didn’t, you remembered right. I was surprised how well it actually worked. There were times when I was thinking, “She slipped up when she said ‘he’. I know it. I know this baby is going to be a boy.” But then there were other times when I was thinking, “She slipped up when she said ‘her.’ I know it’s going to be a girl.”

  3. dgm said

    you mean you didn’t know doug was a boy until he both 1) made his appearance and 2) peed on the doctor?

    what took you so long? 😉

  4. Why did you refer to yourself in the third person?

    Your name seems oddly familiar.

    For some reason I’d never have thought someone would write blogs on semantics… though I suppose it isn’t that hard to imagine. More often than not I find myself forgetting about the topic at hand, and arguing semantics instead…. which makes no sense since I am in no way *semantically apt*

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