Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Don’t Know Which Way Is Up!

Posted by Neal on May 29, 2007

I was volunteering in Doug’s classroom a couple of weeks ago, and as I sat in the back with the paperwork Mrs. M. had set me to work on, I watched her teach the geography lesson. Earlier in the week, they had colored and cut out compass roses. Today they were labeling them with the cardinal and intercardinal points and practicing using these points. Once everyone had put labeled their compass roses properly, Mrs. M. told them:

Put your compass rose on your desk, with North pointing to the top.

Huh? I thought. If you put it on your desk, the whole thing is on the top of the desk, and North will be pointing horizontally to some other desk, or the door, or the window or something. Well, maybe she wanted them to hang them on the front of their desks, with North more or less pointing to the top that way, and South pointing to the floor.

As I wondered if the kids were supposed to use tape for this, I saw that they were all laying their compass roses on their desks with North pointing away from them, and South pointing toward them. And evidently, that was what Mrs. M. wanted, because she went on with the lesson, having them identify the direction in which various classroom landmarks lay.

I suddenly realized: With grocery carts, I may not know which end is front, but with desks, I don’t know which way is up! As I wrote a few years back,

For me, the front of the shopping cart is the part farthest from the handle. For my wife, the front is the part you push. I’m following the model of things that move: The part that arrives first is the front. (Except for octopuses and other cephalopods, I suppose.) She’s following the paradigm of refrigerators, computers, TVs, washing machines, ovens, etc.: The part that faces you is the front.

I think what tripped me up here is that I was thinking of desks in terms of any other piece of furniture; the top is the part farthest from the ground. The model Mrs. M. and the students were thinking of was a sheet of paper, whose top is the part farthest away from you when it’s lying on a flat surface (assuming you haven’t turned it upside down before laying it on that flat surface). I guess the metaphorical transfer of these directions from a sheet of paper to the flat surface that supports it isn’t so much of a stretch.

But wait, there’s more. I came across the same kind of “horizontal up” when I was making our bed with a new bedspread one day. I couldn’t tell which sides of the spread were supposed to go at the head and foot of the bed and which were supposed to go on the sides. My wife suggested having the lines on the bedspread run “vertically” — not actually vertically from ceiling to floor, but horizontally, from the head of the bed to the foot. Here the conflict is probably not between furniture model and sheet-of-paper model, but between furniture model and human-being model (as evidenced by the terms head and foot for the ends of the bed). I can make it more general: furniture model vs. thing-that-typically-lies-on-top-of-furniture model. Anyway, the conflict doesn’t stop when we make the bed. When we’re lying in it and she asks me to scratch her back, and then says “Up a little,” I have to decide whether to move my hand toward the ceiling or toward her shoulders. What I really need to do is get her another backscratcher.


One Response to “I Don’t Know Which Way Is Up!”

  1. Athene said

    I can remember in first grade realizing that you usually draw human beings facing you, in which case their left and right will be the reverse of yours, as in real life. I then decided that the entire orientation of paper needed to be flipped, so that when I was told to draw a square on the right side of the paper, I drew it on the left, and vice versa. I quickly, though, realized that this was not the way to do it. I remember being disappointed because I thought I had been quite clever.

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