Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Booger-Eating and Eating Boogers

Posted by Neal on April 19, 2006

A local alternative newspaper had this to say about the movie The Benchwarmers, which opened last weekend:

Why see this film? Maybe you think it’s fun to see adults beat children [at games], or maybe you like booger eating, bug eating, and projectile vomiting.
(Hope Madden, “A film only Adam Sandler could like,” The Other Paper, April 13-19, 2006, p. 25)

As I consider whether I should see this film, then, I must ask myself: Do I like booger-eating?

The question is not so simple to answer. First, consider this pair of sentences:

1. I like swimming.
2. I like to swim.

For our purposes, these sentences mean the same thing, whether the gerund swimming or the infinitive to swim is used. (For discussion of the subtler differences between the two, see pp. 1241-1243 of CGEL.) Granted, if I’m watching the summer Olympics and utter sentence (1), then there’ll be a meaning difference between in and (2), but I’ll exclude that context for now. Now consider this next pair of sentences:

3. I like eating boogers.
4. I like to eat boogers.

Once again, the meanings are essentially the same. But the reviewer didn’t use the phrase eating boogers; she used the compound word booger eating. So let’s try plugging that into our template:

5. I like booger-eating.
6. *I like to booger-eat.

Uh-oh. Looks like the gerund/participial form booger-eating hasn’t yet gone through the backformation machine to give us the verb booger-eat. To phrase (5) with an infinitive, we’ll have to do it with the phrase eat boogers–in other words, the way we did it in (4). So let’s now compare:

5. I like booger-eating.
4. I like to eat boogers.

Under what I’ll call the participatory (i.e. truly disgusting) reading of (5), it would mean the same thing as (4), just like I like swimming and I like to swim do in the non-Olympics scenario. Under the non-participatory (i.e. not-so-much-disgusting-as-perverse) reading of (5), it and (4) would mean different things, like I like swimming and I like to swim in the Olympics scenario. So which reading did the reviewer intend? It could make a difference in whether I want to go see this movie!

Leaving that question aside, however, I wonder why (5) is readily ambiguous, while (1) is ambiguous only in certain contexts. It’s not that like+[any compound gerund] is ambiguous; I like {skydiving, breakdancing, waterskiing} and I like to {skydive, breakdance, waterski} all have the same meaning to my ear, barring “Olympic”-like contexts.

What I think is going on is that when a gerund could be phrased either as a compound word (as in I like booger-eating) or as a phrase (I like eating boogers), pragmatic differences arise, with the phrasal version tending to be used for the more ordinary, participatory reading, and the compound version for the non-participatory reading. (I talk about a similar case here.) The exception is when the compound gerund does have an infinitival counterpart. *Booger-eat is not a verb, AFAIK, but people-watch is, and to my ear, all four of the following have the same, participatory reading:

7. I like people-watching.
8. I like to people-watch.
9. I like watching people.
10. I like to watch people.

The prediction this analysis makes is that when and if *booger-eat enters the lexicon, we can expect I like booger-eating to veer more toward the participatory reading. But for now, I think the movie critic had the non-participatory one in mind, so I can make my decision accordingly. Meanwhile, if you like booger-eating (or for that matter, eating boogers), here are two pieces you’re sure to enjoy.

3 Responses to “Booger-Eating and Eating Boogers”

  1. Robin said

    Hi there,

    I was reading a previous post of your’s from wayyyy back that brought me here to your updated blog. The one I got a kick out of had to do w/pragmatics and “reading between” the lines. I laughed out loud because I remember those awful “Mulligan Stew” films from grade school! The were so pathetic!

    I also noted that you mentioned having a kid on the spectrum. Same here. An Aspie kid.

    Now to comment on the booger thread…eww. Reminds me of a discussion (sort of) that went on in the movie “Barbershop” where the characters are discussing the differences in the phrases, “A big-assed woman”and,”A woman with a big ass”. The latter defined as Jennifer Lopez, the former some huge woman.

    Take care,
    Robin M.

  2. Elizabeth Zwicky said

    Conversation in car:
    Aunt, to almost-2-year-old: We don’t eat snot. It tastes nasty and it’s bad for you.
    Mother (trying to make childrearing point to aunt): Clearly, this is false. Maybe you don’t eat snot, but she does. She’s just not supposed to.
    Adult cousin 1: False twice.
    Adult cousin 2, the doctor: False 3 times. It’s not bad for you either.
    Aunt: Yecch! Blecch! Stop! I don’t want to know how you know how it tastes!
    Mother, to child: Don’t eat snot in public. It’s not polite. Here’s a kleenex.

  3. Neal said

    Adult cousins: Hey, wait a minute, Mom–how do *you* know how it tastes?

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