Lollipops, Suckers, and Maggots in the Trash
Posted by Neal on August 26, 2009
While eating breakfast yesterday, Adam was somehow reminded of the time I videotaped maggots in the garbage can.
It happened when Adam was in kindergarten. One Thursday afternoon I set about taking the emptied garbage cans back into the garage, and as I pulled one of them upright, I saw some stuff in the bottom. It turned out to be maggots, eating what appeared to be pieces of chicken from a fast-food sandwich. I figured my wife must have gotten the sandwich on her way home from work earlier in the week, and tossed the bag with the leftovers directly into the garbage can in the garage on her way into the house. The food had spilled out of the bag sometime after that, to become accessible to the flies. I hosed out the can, but not before I’d fetched our videocamera and taken a couple of minutes of footage to show Doug and Adam later on. Apparently it made quite an impression on Adam.
“Garbage cans and trash cans are the same thing,” I said.
“Oh? Well, I say garbage can for the small ones in the house, and trash can for the big ones in the garage.”
“You’re free to do that,” I told him, “but don’t expect everyone else to know about or respect this distinction you’re making.”
I looked it up just now, and my Random House Unabridged Dictionary has garbage for the wetter, slimier stuff, typically from the kitchen; trash for dry refuse. I’d never known about that difference. Doug never did, either, and instead created his own distinction, at least between garbage can and trash can.
It reminded me of an idiolectal distinction of my own that I had from toddlerhood to my junior year in high school.I had two words for two similar kinds of candy: A lollipop was a sphere of hard candy on a stick, while a sucker was a disk of hard candy on a stick. This distinction was reinforced by the existence of Tootsie Pops and Blow Pops, two kinds of spheres of hard candy on sticks (with the added attraction of Tootsie Roll stuff or bubble gum in the center), with names that obviously contained a clipped form of lollipop. As I grew up, on occasion I’d hear people get it wrong, calling a lollipop a sucker. I was finally moved to comment on it one year in high school, when the band was selling Blow Pops to raise funds (or should I say, to fundraise?). Every day for several weeks I’d see classmates buying or (in the case of band members) selling these lollipops, but not once did I hear anyone call one a lollipop. They might refer to them by the brand name of Blow Pops, but otherwise, they called them suckers. I finally complained to a friend about it one day, wondering if people just didn’t like the word lollipop because it sounded childish or something. I was puzzled when I learned that the meaning difference between lollipop and sucker didn’t exist for her.
I tried to remember how I’d learned the distinction, but couldn’t. All I can guess now is that the first time I saw a globe of hard candy on a stick, it was just chance that whoever told me the name called it a lollipop instead of a sucker; and vice versa for the first time I saw a disk of hard candy on a stick. Then, finding myself with two words for a similar kind of object, I looked for the difference that would explain why one object was called a lollipop, and the other a sucker. The difference I seized upon was the difference in shape. Carving the distinction in this way made it hard for me to know what to call squares or cubes of hard candy on sticks.
What Doug and I did is a manifestation of a tendency that linguists call “One Form, One Meaning.” The idea is that there are no perfect synonyms, and that even if two words start out as synonyms, over time speakers will create a distinction between them, even if it’s just a distinction in degree of formality. Arnold Zwicky has blogged a lot on OFOM as it relates to prescriptive rules on grammar and usage. For example, when some English speaker decided there must be some meaning difference to account for the different forms of healthy and healthful, it was the same kind of reasoning I used when I beheld the maggots in the garbage can and decided that the longer, fatter, slightly yellow ones and the shorter, whiter ones must be different species of flies.
This entry was posted on August 26, 2009 at 11:46 am and is filed under Doug, Food-related, Lexical semantics. 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.