Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

MaggotsI think Doug remembered it, too, not because he said, “Yeah, that was cool!”, but because he told Adam, “It wasn’t a garbage can, it was a trash can.”

“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.LollipopsSuckersI 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.

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18 Responses to “Lollipops, Suckers, and Maggots in the Trash”

  1. Uly said

    What a coincidence! Just a short while ago, maybe a week or two, somebody posted on the Linguaphiles community on LiveJournal asking if there’s a distinction between suckers and lollipops. Answers were mixed.

    Incidentally, I’d usually say garbage can for anything that holds potentially wet or smelly stuff (the big can in the garage) and trash can for anything that holds paper (like a wastepaper basket), though I wouldn’t get my dander up if other people failed to make this distinction themselves.

    • Uly said

      Incidentally, when I say “mixed” I mean *really* mixed. You have people saying the round ones are suckers and the flat ones are lollipops; you have people saying the flat ones are suckers and the ROUND ones are lollipops; you have people saying they’re only suckers if you can suck them, if they’re too big or awkward then they’re lollipops; and you have people saying that lollipop is reserved for fancier ones (or, alternatively, that sucker is reserved for really cheap ones); and you have people saying that one term or the other sounds so old-fashioned they’re surprised anybody still uses it. It’s amazing how many ways people can make a distinction between two different words for the same thing – I just use one term (lollipop) and run with it myself 😛

      • Neal said

        Thanks, Uly, that was really eye-opening — both the Linguaphiles thread, and the similar thread that you then opened on the Babywearers’ Forum. (You have to have an account to view it, but it’s free to do so.)

        A joke my friend Greg liked to tell in fourth grade:
        Greg: Hey, were you at my lollipop party?
        Me: Uh, no …
        Greg: Ah, I thought there was a sucker missing!

      • Uly said

        I didn’t know you read TBW or I would’ve linked to that the first time through 🙂

        I ought to start a poll on my own LJ/DW, now that I’m thinking about this so much, but enough of the people who read my LJ also post on Linguaphiles that I don’t see the point.

      • Neal said

        I didn’t, until I saw a trickle of hits coming from it, and signed in to see what was going on. I was relieved to see what babywearing actually referred to!

      • Uly said

        LOL, that makes more sense then! I *thought* your kids were a bit old to be worn – and my standards for that are a bit loose (as in, I have worn the six year old, entering first grade in a week niece recently), but not THAT loose!

  2. kip said

    When I hear “lollipop” I only think of those giant (like, 1-foot diameter) discs of candy on a stick.

  3. The Ridger said

    Well, when I hear “lollipop” I think of that song, which is now stuck in an endless loop in my brain, thank you very much… For me, more seriously, lollipops have to be on sticks and suckers don’t (but can be).

    • lynneguist said

      I think of the flat ones as being lollipops and the round ones as being suckers. Oh well.

      But for an extreme version of this, search the American Dialect Society List archives for grey and gray–there’s an old discussion (can’t link to it directly, I think) in which people claim that they refer to different colo(u)rs. (I discuss this example a bit in the chapter on synonyms in my book _Semantic relations and the lexicon_.)

      • With respect to claims of a difference between “grey” and “gray”, it is, of course, important to be clear exactly what claim is being made. It’s one thing to claim that “grey” and “gray” have different meanings, in the sense that it might sometimes be more true to say that something is “grey” than to say that it is “gray”. It’s another thing to claim that when people read the word “grey” or “gray” and try to visualise the colour in their mind’s eye, the choice of spelling can influence the shade that they see. If someone claims to perceive a difference between “grey” and “gray”, it remains ambiguous which of these two claims they are making.

  4. Glen said

    For a long time, there was a sign posted above the garbage can at the door from my garage into my apartment building. The sign was written by the apartment manager, and it said, “THIS IS NOT A GARBAGE CAN. Do not put food or drinks in it.” But I can’t recall whether the sign actually said ‘garbage’ or ‘trash’. Anyway, since my vocabulary has no garbage/trash distinction, I regarded this as a silly sign. It reminded me of that Magritte painting with a pipe and a caption reading, “This is not a pipe” in French. Apparently at least one other resident agreed me, because he wrote in pen on the sign: “It’s a tree!”

  5. Stan said

    Growing up, I called them all rubbish bins or just bins. This nomenclature still stands, but sometimes I need to introduce a distinction according to rubbish type: the recycling bin (AKA the green bin), the biodegradable [or organic waste] bin (AKA the brown bin), and the general waste [or general rubbish] bin (AKA the black bin).

    Obviously the biodegradable bin is itself not biodegradable, but calling it the bin for biodegradable waste would be more awkward than sensible. And the colours make sense only to those using the same waste disposal service or one with equivalent colour coding. The bins themselves are not green, brown, or black, but their lids are.

  6. hsgudnason said

    Neal, I must say that, between the maggots and the rotten teeth, you’ve managed to come up with two of the most unappetizing web images I’ve ever seen!

    But I say that in the most affectionate and respectful way possible.

  7. To give you an Australian perspective on garbage (which I alluded to in a Language Log comment a while back), we don’t typically use the word “trash” at all, but the words “garbage” and “rubbish” are both common. “Rubbish” is the umbrella term, and (at least for me) “garbage” is rubbish in the context of being something collected by the council.

    For example, if I talk about taking out the *rubbish*, I mean emptying my indoor bins into the large outdoor bin provided by the council. As soon as the rubbish is emptied into the outdoor bin, it becomes garbage. If I talk about taking out the *garbage*, I mean wheeling the outdoor bin to the side of the street so that it can be collected.

    That’s a simplified account. The whole story is a little more complex, for example recyclables are never garbage even though they are collected by the council.

    It is very unusual, these days, for any sort of rubbish (whether garbage or not) to be stored in cans.

    I’ve never heard of the word “sucker” in the context of confectionary.

    • Lakalula said

      Soon after I had moved from the U.S. to England, I needed to ask a neighbor to wheel our trash barrel back from the curb because we would be away. I knew trash was rubbish and a receptacle for trash was a bin, so I asked him to please move our rubbish bin. He looked at me blankly. Finally the penny dropped, “Oh, you mean the dustbin!”

  8. Isn’t it strange that although people instinctively reject synonymy, they don’t reject polysemy?

    Whenever a meaning pops up with two or more words for it, like garbage/trash or lollipop/sucker, people begin imagining all sorts of semantic dictinctions between them, as if they want the words to mean different things.

    But when a word pops up with two or more meanings, nobody feels the urge to do anything about it. Like bank, which has (at least) two meanings: a money bank and a river bank. Nobody seems to want to have separate words for those.

    Synonymy bad, polysemy good, huh?

    • Uly said

      I don’t know, Michal. I wouldn’t refer to the bank of a river without calling it a riverbank or possibly “the banks” or “the side of the river”.

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