Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Barbecue Rib Sandwiches and Non-Rigid Designators

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2005

Yesterday, Doug and I were figuring out which days this week he would buy lunch at school. The menu for today was barbecued rib sandwiches, and Doug definitely did not want to eat one of those. He was playing with a friend at the time, whom I’ll call Grant (and not because that’s his name).* Grant asked him why he didn’t want a barbecue rib sandwich. Doug said he didn’t like them. Well, it’s early enough in the year that BRS’s haven’t been served before, and Doug and Grant didn’t eat lunch in the cafeteria last year because they only had half-day school, so it looked like a clear case of disliking-before-trying.

Grant saw that Doug needed some education on the benefits of trying new foods, and he began to rehearse for Doug the lecture he must have gotten from his parents on the topic. I was happy to shut up and let him do it. I didn’t want to waste one of my own “try new foods” lectures on a barbecue rib sandwich from a school cafeteria, but if one of Doug’s peers wanted to do it, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

You shouldn’t be afraid to try new foods, Grant told Doug–you never know when something you try might turn out to be fantastic! In fact, he went on, there was a time when he was so picky he refused to eat pizza, but now it was his favorite food! He elaborated:

When I was four, I didn’t even like my favorite food. All I would eat was my favorite food.

Out of context, this sounds like something you’d expect someone with some unresolved issues to say, along the lines of:

If I’m happy I’m miserable–but I love to be miserable. So that makes me happy. But I don’t like being happy. So that makes me miserable…. you know, I’m a mess.
(Oscar the Grouch, quoted in Sesame Street Unpaved, David Borgenicht, 1998, p. 107)

In context, though, Grant’s statement made sense. My favorite food, like my son’s teacher, the book of the month, and Tom Cruise’s wife, is a nonrigid designator. That is, unlike rigid designators, which refer to the same entity regardless of time and place, the thing my favorite food, refers to can change across time, even if we restrict it to a given person’s favorite. (By the way, you might be surprised to find out that Jack Nicholson seems to be a nonrigid designator; check out this post from Semantic Compositions a year and a half ago, about the woman who unwittingly purchased Chris Rock’s old cell phone.) Of course, when the designator changes referents in the same discourse, it’s nice to help out the listener by saying current favorite and then-favorite, or favorite at the time. And how much easier to understand this famous proclamation would have been with a well-placed former and new:

The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen!

Anyway, Doug went to school today packing a bologna sandwich. When I took him to the bus stop I saw Grant’s mom, and after the bus had left I told her about Grant’s conversation with Doug. She told me Grant was bringing his lunch today, because he didn’t want to eat the school cafeteria’s barbecue rib sandwich.

*Just to be clear, I don’t mean that his name might happen to be Grant and I’m calling him Grant for a reason other than that it’s his name. His name really isn’t Grant.

4 Responses to “Barbecue Rib Sandwiches and Non-Rigid Designators”

  1. Aristomedes said

    Woody Allen made good use of this nonrigidity, having a character refer to him as “my favorite director in his earlier, funny, movies” in a later, somewhat more serious movie.

  2. I see you’re switching between “barbecueD rib sandwich” and “barbecue rib sandwich.” Are we witnessing the same kind of transition that turned “iced cream” into “ice cream” and (regrettably in my opinion) “iced tea” to “ice tea”?

  3. Neal said

    I just put it without the D because that’s how the menu had it. As for ‘ice cream’ and ‘iced tea,’ I think the loss of the ‘d’ in the latter was phonetically motivated: it’s hard to hear the final [t] of ‘iced’ when it’s right next to an initial [t]. For ‘ice cream’ and ‘barbecue rib,’ I’d guess it’s more a case of consonant cluster simplification. It’s easier to pronounce [aiskr] than [aistkr], and easier to say [ur] than [udr]. And in all three cases, since the meaning of the original Adj+N phrase is still a possible meaning for the resulting N+N compound, there’s no big semantic roadblock to stop the change.

  4. Edwin said

    Probably not gonna get an answer- but anyone email me a way to get these lovely sandwiches for home-meals?

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