Like a Racehorse
Posted by Neal on April 25, 2006
DGM of Sunny Side Up has written about her encounters with an evil nurse at the ER. At one point in the story, she tells us,
I had to pee like a racehorse.
Now DGM is a bit sensitive about me putting stuff she writes under the linguistic magnifying glass, so let me say that I wasn’t planning on commenting on this sentence, any more than I’d comment on most other idioms I come across. But that was before one commenter asked:
One thing I need clarified: I’ve never understood why race horses, in particular, need to piss so bad.
My brother Glen then stepped in to explain:
I can clarify the racehorse thing. The phrase “need to piss like a racehorse” should be parsed [need to] [piss like a racehorse], *not* [need to piss] [like a racehorse]. In other words, racehorses have no special need to piss that other organisms do not. Rather, racehorses piss in a particular way, and the speaker needs to piss in that way. And what is that way, you ask? In a long gushing torrent, as you’ll know if you ever observe a racehorse pissing.
A good analysis. The only thing I’d change is his bracketing for the intended reading to [need to [ piss like a racehorse] ].
This is an example of an attachment ambiguity, in that we could theoretically attach the modifier like a racehorse to the “lower” verb phrase pee or to the “higher” verb phrase need to pee. As Glen explained, the intended attachment is to the lower verb, but why the tendency for at least one person, and probably many others, to attach it up high? I think it’s just because the entire phrase need to pee like a racehorse has the meaning of “need very intensely to urinate,” or as the commenter put it, “need to piss [really] bad.” (I mean, I can’t really think of any reason for needing to pee in a long, gushing torrent, other than that you urgently need to go. Can you?) So if that’s what the entire phrase means, and the “need to pee” part of the meaning is clearly taken up by the need to pee part of the phrase, then it stands to reason that the “bad/intensely” part of the meaning must correspond to what’s left: like a racehorse. And hence the bias toward attaching it to the higher phrase need to pee.
Of course, if need to pee like a racehorse is ambiguous in this way, so is need to pee really bad. I have fun attaching the really bad down low instead of up high, producing dialogues like this:
Doug or Adam: I need to pee really bad!
Neal: OK, go pee really bad!
Now that I think about it, I suppose that’s not such a good thing to tell little boys.
This entry was posted on April 25, 2006 at 11:50 pm and is filed under Attachment ambiguity, Potty on, dudes!, Syntax. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.