Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Did I Join a Good Gym?

Posted by Neal on February 18, 2009

Not a picture of me

Not a picture of me

In December, I wrote about my confusion at an ad for a weight-loss system that had a satisfied customer saying, “I lost fifteen pounds! And kept it off for three years!” A commenter (regular reader Viola) wrote, “And for goodness sakes, Neal, I thought you’d literally lost 15 pounds!” Actually, I have lost about 15 pounds in the past year, and lowered my body fat by about eight percentage points. My wife made me go and buy new pants because my belt wasn’t holding up my old ones well enough. Unfortunately, I lost the weight by going to a gym, which puts you in a dangerous cycle. OK, not dangerous, but troublesome. As with narcotics, it takes more and more exercise to get the same effect, as your body gets more efficient at lifting the weights or running on the treadmill. And when Doug and Adam are sick and home from school, like they are today, I can’t go to the gym. The gym has a nice kids’ area (that is, a nice area for kids; mean kids aren’t excluded), but if I were to park Doug and Adam there on a school day, the attendant would probably ask me inconvenient questions, whose answer would be “Because they’re sick and can’t go to school.” So I stay at home, and that body fat percentage starts creeping right back up. Isn’t there some point at which I can ease off without the weight and fat coming back? Oh, I forgot: Fitness is a journey, not a destination. But like, journeys have ends, don’t they?

Anyway, about a month ago, I was at the gym, on my way to the bank of treadmills, when I noticed a woman sitting with one of the membership sales reps at a desk in the sales-closing area. I always have sympathy for the sales people there — I remember being in their situation many times when I worked at a ballroom dance studio. “Looks like he’s presented her the three membership plans,” I thought as I approached. “And now he’s probably asked her which one she wants, not whether she wants one, and he’s silently waiting for her answer.” As I passed, I thought, “I wonder if — hey, that’s Doug and Adam’s orthodontist!”

OK, she’s my orthodontist, too. I was not diligent in wearing my retainer back in high school, if you must know.

“Hi, Dr. Higginbotham!” I said. She looked up and waved, I continued to the treadmills, and she turned her attention back to the membership information. I wondered if she would sign up, or say she needed to go home and think about it.

A couple of weeks later, I was lying in the chair at the orthodontist’s office. As Dr. Higginbotham put on her rubber gloves, she asked,

So, did I join a good gym?

Had she joined a good gym? Well, for the answer to be yes, two things would have to be true. One, she would have to have joined a gym. Two, that gym would have to be a good one. I guess my gym’s OK, but that still left the first requirement.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Did you join?”

She affirmed that she had. As she poked around the wires and brackets, telling the technician to put a Class 2 box here and a chain there, I thought about how stupid my response had been. She wouldn’t have expected me to know whether she’d joined my gym. Heck, she wouldn’t have expected me to know whether she’d joined any gym. Furthermore, she already knew whether she’d joined or not. Clearly, she wasn’t asking for an answer to whether she had joined a gym. She expected me just to accommodate an addition to our common knowledge, to the effect that she had joined a gym, and not just any gym, but the gym where I had seen her. And that left the only part of the question I was competent to answer anyway: Was the gym a good one?

For that matter, she probably wasn’t truly interested in even that answer. If I thought the gym was a bad one, why had I been working out there? No, all she’d been doing was making conversation, and acknowledging the unusual circumstances in which we’d last seen each other. And in fact, I knew this as soon as she asked the question. But still I’d been sidetracked by the literal semantics of it. It’s part of my charm, I suppose.

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5 Responses to “Did I Join a Good Gym?”

  1. The Ridger said

    You really are literal-minded, aren’t you?

    But you give me good examples for talking about pragmatics and implicature, so I’m all for it.

  2. viola said

    Neal, sooner or later I knew I’d draw out an announcement of your true weight loss. BTW, Dr. Higginbotham? Heh…funny considering how very attractive she is. Have a great day and try to fit in a couple of crunches.

  3. Glen said

    I had assumed Higginbotham was not her real name. In the Whitman household, Higginbotham is a generic funny name, used to refer to any anonymous person in humorous fashion.

    I believe the origin was an old joke, in which a battleship’s communications officer broke the news that an enlisted man’s mother had died thus: “Everyone whose mother is still alive take one step forward… Not so fast, Higginbotham, not so fast!”

  4. viola said

    Between the two of you, (Whitman brothers) I shan’t forget the Higginbothams of this world. Dr. Higginbotham will be directing traffic in my mouth next week. We’re paying for her gym membership, Neal, so it better be a good gym!

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