Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Who Wants to Be Named After a Prehistoric Fish?

Posted by Neal on May 12, 2006

Earlier this week, the newspaper had a story about a construction worker named Jeff Partin, who found a fossil of an armored fish at a work site. He’s hoping he can make some money off of it. The last paragraph of the article reads:

Partin’s fish, [John Maisey of the American Museum of Natural History] said, likely has more scientific value than commercial.

Partin isn’t so sure, especially if it proves to be a new species.

“I’d sell the naming rights,” he said.

“I’m sure there’s someone out there who would like to be named for a prehistoric fish.”
“A mystery wrapped in a fossil,” Mike Lafferty, The Columbus Dispatch, May 9, 2006. D6-7.)

There are two problems Partin faces. First, in order to determine if it is indeed a new (i.e., previously undiscovered) species, the rock matrix around the bones would have to be dissolved or otherwise removed, and Partin isn’t sure he wants that to happen until he knows if he can get more money for the bones in situ. The second problem is that if someone wants to be named after a prehistoric fish, they can do that right now and not have to pay Partin anything. There are plenty of known prehistoric fish that have already been given scientific names, and if I wanted to, I could go to the courthouse right now (well, OK, tomorrow, when it’s open) and name myself after Dunkleosteus or Paleospondylus . (Since you’re my friends, you could call me Dunk or Spondy for short.) I think a more reasonable option for Partin to consider is to find people who want to have a prehistoric fish named after them, and forget about people who want to be named after a prehistoric fish.

I’m guessing that my suggestion is what Partin had in mind in the first place, and his phrasing was just a mistake. Still, it’s interesting that such an error is possible. After all, if I wanted to say, “Give the dog a bone” but accidentally said, “Give the bone a dog,” I’d recognize the error immediately, and correct it. But Partin’s error seems to have slipped past.

Partin’s reversal of the semantics for (what in an active-voice sentence would be) the direct object (but turns up here as the subject) and the after-PP reminds me of another error that I see occasionally, involving the word endear. At least, I think it’s an error (i.e., that the speakers don’t mean to do it), but I’m not so sure anymore. Here is the standard usage:

John endeared himself to Marsha.
Subject = AGENT
(the person causing Marsha to have affectionate feelings toward someone/something)
Direct object = STIMULUS
(the thing Marsha has the affectionate feelings toward)
Object of to = EXPERIENCER
(the person having the affectionate feelings)

And here are examples of the error:

As I read the thread, all the dorky things posters listed actually endeared me even more to Shelle. (link)
Subject = AGENT (dorky things)
Direct object = EXPERIENCER (I)
Object of to = STIMULUS (Shelle)

This book endears one to hapless Paraguay, says Anthony Daniels (link)
Subject = AGENT (this book)
Direct object = EXPERIENCER (one)
Object of to = STIMULUS (Paraguay)

In these examples, the semantic roles for the direct object and prepositional objects have been swapped. So why does this happen with endear X to Y, and on at least one occasion with name X after Y, but not with, say, give X Y? For endear, I think it has something to do with “thematic proto-roles,” an idea pioneered by David Dowty. One part of his proto-role theory is that the participant in the action named by the verb that has the greatest number of “patient-like” properties is the one most likely to be realized as a direct object. One of these properties is undergoing a change of state, which the EXPERIENCER for endear does: They come to be fond of something. The STIMULUS for endear, however, does not satisfy any of the patient-like properties: undergoing a change of state, coming into being, being causally affected by a participant in the action, or being stationary relative to some other participant’s motion. Therefore, it would be more likely for the EXPERIENCER role to show up as the direct object, and hence the tendency for some speakers to put it there by mistake, or even enter the verb in their mental lexicon as having an EXPERIENCER direct object and use it accordingly.

But what about name X after Y? X can be argued to undergo a change of state, in that it gains a name, and is causally affected by the namer. Y does not have to satisfy any of the patient-like properties, so we would expect it to be realized just as it is: in a PP> For it to show up as a direct object, as in Partin’s sentence, isn’t as understandable as the situation with endear. The conclusion I draw is that Partin’s sentence is more likely to be a true error, while the nonstandard endear usage is more likely to be variation in speakers’ grammars.

One Response to “Who Wants to Be Named After a Prehistoric Fish?”

  1. ACW said

    I spotted the error on first reading, but I have to confess that I sympathized. Don’t you think it likely that Partin was feeling semantic interference from the fact that the prehistoric fish lived millions of years before his putative customer? True, the fish (if it represents a new species) hasn’t been named yet, so indeed it would be named after someone. But I suspect Partin felt momentary confusion of the sort one would feel on hearing an Irish Bull like “His great-grandfather was named after him.”. I can see myself making the same error.

    I suspect that Partin is deluded in thinking that the naming rights are his to sell. My understanding is that naming rights belong to the biologist who first describes the species (in a monograph whose format is quite fixed by tradition). Perhaps Partin plans to write this monograph himself, once he secures a “buyer”. But I doubt it; I think he’s just confused.

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