Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Help the Genocide

Posted by Neal on August 21, 2008

“How’s your headache?”

I always wanted to hear someone answer, “It’s great. It’s stronger than ever, and killing me.” It went against my natural tendencies to accept that “Better” meant that the headache’s owner, not the headache, was better. I had similar trouble with hearing about medicine that would “help your cold”, or your infection. But learn those idioms I did, and I’m fine with them now.

Or I thought I was, until Lynneguist of Separated by a Common Language reported this sighting to the American Dialect Society mailing list:

Children are being hurt and killed in Darfur. Donate money to help the genocide.

She wondered if it was a mistake, and found some websites that had the same phrasing. One of them said, “If you want to lend a hand with the conflict in Darfur, these organizations may be a place to start.” As Lynneguist wrote, better than which I could not have put it myself, “I half-expected some of the organizations listed to be arms dealers.”

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4 Responses to “Help the Genocide”

  1. hjælmer said

    After living in Germania for several years, I returned to the U.S. and began saying things like, “I’m taking a pill against my cold.” A caring friend eventually pointed out my mistake, but I still had to fight against the notion that taking the pill FOR my cold felt like helping an undeserving enemy.

  2. AJD said

    Is this related to the constructions in which help means ‘prevent’? Such as I couldn’t help it.

  3. The Ridger said

    I think it’s an idiomatic construction with an omitted but understood “during, in this time of” or some such. We have a lot of these, not just with “help”. “Take something for your cold” is another – it’s not for the cold in the normal benefactive use (as in “buy a book for my sister”); it is in fact against the cold. The pragmatic assumption (I guess that’s what it is) seems to be that you know that the action will help the person in their circumstances.

  4. J. Dallas Parkin said

    Clearly we always deal with a tangle of ideas from older stages of the language. The word ‘for’ once had ‘facing towards’ as a main concrete meaning. It’s an easy semantic step from there to ‘against’, ‘opposing’. I’d say that our prepositions have some highly marked, complex historical layerings that resist easy pragmatic analysis, but we all have a pretty good intuitive grip on them. That’s why using ‘against’ instead of ‘for’ with a cold remedy almost cuts it with me, and I could easily slip into using it. In other constructions ‘against’ IS the better choice, or sometimes (at least in my home dialect) it can be a toss-up.

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