Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Polysemy’ Category

Picking Up a Prescription

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2011

My wife called me one morning this week, asking if I could pick up a prescription for her. As it happened, I was on my way to our grocery store and pharmacy anyway, so I said sure.

“It’s at Dr. M’s office,” she continued.

So much for combining errands. I said “OK,” but found the situation a bit odd. There have been times when I’ve picked up a prescription at a doctor’s office instead of the pharmacy, but only when the doctor was a veterinarian. This medicine must be something pretty unusual for the doctor himself to have to provide it.

I finished the grocery trip, and in the afternoon I went to the doctor’s office. Exactly what kind of powerful drug did these people have for my wife? The receptionist walked to an accordion folder, reached into a slot near the back, and pulled out … a slip of paper! Signed by the doctor, with the name of a medicine on it!

Suddenly I remembered that doctors often provide patients such pieces of paper, and that these pieces of paper are called prescriptions. Of course, when you give your pharmacist one of these papers with the name of a medicine on it, and they sell you a bottle of that actual medicine, that’s a prescription, too. I’ve got to learn to keep those straight.

Posted in Polysemy, The wife | 2 Comments »

Father’s Day Polysemy

Posted by Neal on June 20, 2011

Yesterday I sat and opened the Father’s Day gifts (yes, plural) that the wife and the boys had gotten me. Most of them were shirts and shorts. Doug was saying he thought at least one of those boxes would have been clothes that were just disguising the real gift, but no, every box with clothes in it was actually a gift of clothes. I explained that clothes really were a good gift.

“Do you know what happens when people don’t give you clothes as gifts?” I asked.


“It means you have to go out and buy them yourself. Or if you don’t, the clothes you have keep getting more worn out and crummy-looking, and then you have to buy more clothes yourself anyway.”

Yes, for me, a gift of clothes is as much a gift of time as a gift of stuff to wear. But as it turned out, my family had one more gift after all the clothes were stacked on the table and the wrapping was lying on the floor with cats crawling underneath it.

“Doug got annoyed with me,” my wife said, “when I kept saying things like, ‘Let’s give your dad his Father’s Day.'”

“I’d say, ‘Do you mean Father’s Day presents?'” Doug explained.

“Ah, nice polysemy!” I said.

My wife picked up again. “But Adam, meanwhile, would say things like, ‘After Father’s Day, we’re going out to lunch?'”

Wow, even more polysemy! In addition to referring to the day itself, my family was using Father’s Day to refer not only to gifts given for the occasion, but to the giving and receiving of those gifts, too. And most interesting of all, I thought, was that it wasn’t Adam, on the autism spectrum, who was insisting on the more literal meaning, but Doug. Adam was extending the polysemy even further than his mother was taking it.

Posted in Adam, Doug, Polysemy, The wife | 1 Comment »

The White House

Posted by Neal on May 22, 2005

One for the TIQ files:


A former Bush Homeland Security adviser said yesterday that he can’t imagine the White House is happy with how Bush was kept out of the loop Wednesday….
“Bush kept in dark during plane scare,” Ken Herman, Cox News Service, May 13, 2005.

And twice:

The White House has defended the decision not to stop President Bush on a bike ride last week to tell him of an emergency evacuation….
“First lady offers candid comments on ‘Newsweek’ and small-plane scare,” Nedra Pickler, Associated Press, May 21, 2005.

These are the only two times I’ve seen or heard the White House used to refer not to the president, or to the White House itself, but to White House officials or administrators. And I only realized it because the actual president was mentioned later in the same sentence. I wonder how many other times I’ve heard the White House in some sentence and assumed it was referring to the president, when really it was just referring to someone (other than the president) who worked there. I wonder if the White House, or even, you know, the White HouseWhite House, likes it this way.

Posted in Polysemy | 1 Comment »

Doug Discovers Polysemy

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2005

Doug said, “You know, Dad, if I wanted to be literal, when Mrs. K. says, ‘The W Table can empty their mailboxes now,’ I could say like, ‘The table doesn’t have a mailbox!'”

“Yeah, that’s called polysemy,” I told him.

“What’s polysemy?”

“It’s when a word has different meanings; not totally different like with duck the bird and duck meaning ‘get down,’ but like what you were saying about the W Table. It’s not a mistake. People use it a lot. Like, uh, ‘I’m parked outside.'”

Doug immediately got it and laughed. No, I wasn’t parked outside, the car was parked outside! This was cool–Doug was now primed and ready to enjoy some polysemous humor. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So I rode the wave:

“And here, Doug, here’s my grocery list. Milk and eggs and chocolate syrup are on it.”

“Ewww!” This was too good. Once his giggling had subsided a little bit, I hit him again:

“Yeah, and how about this one? I ate McDonald’s for lunch. Or maybe when it’s library day, the librarian says, ‘Oh, Mrs. K.’s room is coming in today.'”

Ah, we had some good laughs that day. I remember it like it was yesterday, which it was. Then I had to inject a serious note. “So that’s polysemy. But if you make remarks like ‘The table doesn’t have a mailbox’ too often, it’s very annoying. So please don’t do it in school, OK?”

You see, it takes years to really get a good feeling for when literal-minded humor is appreciated and when it’s not. Doug simply hasn’t had time to develop this subtle instinct, as I have.

Posted in Polysemy, The darndest things, You're so literal! | 4 Comments »

Keepin’ It Literal

Posted by Neal on February 23, 2005

Geoff Pullum writes about someone else’s literal-minded sense of humor:

I was giving directions to my house this morning…. “At the end of the cul de sac,” I told him, “you’ll see a driveway with a pile of mulch under a blue tarp; that’s us.” And I heard him giggle. I saw why. We are not a pile of mulch under a blue tarp, Barbara and me; rather, we live in the house behind it.

I’d’ve laughed, too. It reminded me of what my wife told the babysitter as we were leaving for the parent-teacher conferences last week:

And my cellphone is on the refrigerator if you need to call us.

I said a better plan would probably be to take her cellphone with us, and just leave her cellphone number on the fridge.*

We’ve been together long enough that she often knows when my literalness is about to surface. A day or two later, she talked with the director of Doug’s old preschool, who also happened to have been Doug’s teacher when he was in the class for three-year-olds. At supper, she told Doug about the meeting, and asked him:

Can you believe I talked to your three-year-old teacher today?

Heh, heh, I was thinking, that’s fu–

“Don’t say it!” she told me.

*Or frig, as I’ve seen it spelled here. It makes me think of a prude cussing about someone stealing his lunch at work: “It was right here in the friggin’ frig, and now it’s gone!”

Posted in Polysemy, You're so literal! | 6 Comments »

Silent Pee

Posted by Neal on December 15, 2004

I could tell something was on Adam’s mind last night as I got ready to brush his teeth. He was staring into space as I put the toothpaste on the brush, and said, almost to himself, “Silent P.”

“Silent P? Where?” I asked. I looked all around the bathroom, but didn’t see any obvious text anywhere that he might be noticing, much less one with a silent P in it. I mean, he’s familiar with the concept of silent letters (and likes to listen to this song in the car), but I didn’t think he’d ever seen any words with a silent P. Psychologist, pneumonia, he’s never seen those written. Pteranodon, maybe, but he’s really not into dinosaurs* as much as Doug was, so we hardly ever read him books with that word in them. So what word was he seeing that had a silent P in it?

As I was thinking about all this, Adam said, “Tinkle.”

Ohhh, now I got it. He was thinking about the library book we’d read the night before. The book was I Have to Go, in which the phrase, “I have to go pee!” appeared in several places, in large print. Out of consideration for Doug and Adam’s mom, when I read the book I’d systematically replaced pee with tinkle, using the terminology that Doug and Adam learned from her and their grandma and their aunt. Little did I know that for 24 hours, Adam had been silently struggling, trying to reconcile the phonetic string tinkle with the orthographic string P-E-E that he saw on the page. And now he’d finally arrived at his conclusion: It must be a silent P. I had to admire his reasoning–I do believe he’s gonna turn out to be a real whiz kid!

BTW, I personally don’t care for the word tinkle, and much prefer pee. But standardly using tinkle from the time Doug and Adam were in diapers has honed my appreciation for the strange semantic journey it’s undergone. First there’s its onomatopoetic meaning, which I assume is the basis for its use as a euphemism for “urinate.” From there, the verb tinkle can be used to refer to the bodily waste itself, reproducing the verb-noun polysemy seen in pee, piss, poop, and shit. Tinkle the noun can be turned into the adjective tinkly, as in, He has a tinkly diaper. And at this point the irony kicks in when you try to get back to the original meaning of the word. It’d seem that tinkly ought to refer to things like windchimes or ice cubes in a glass, but instead, we find it describing something that goes squish when you poke it and plop when you drop it on the floor.

*Yes, I know, Pteranodon is not a dinosaur.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Polysemy, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo, The darndest things | 6 Comments »

Playing DVDs on Your DVD

Posted by Neal on October 7, 2004

Ah, if only I’d bought the extended warranty they tried to sell me two years ago. Now our DVD player puts a strange, herringbone-like pattern on our TV screen, which gives my wife a headache, and the repair guy says it’s going to cost a lot to fix. About the same as getting a new DVD player with a fresh warranty on it, so now I have to deal with the guilt of the over-consuming American, getting a new DVD player and figuring out what to do with the old one that still mostly works.

“There is a third option,” I suggested to my wife. “Just take our old DVD player back home, hook it up again, and live with it.”

So anyway, here I am at the electronics store, looking for the aisle with DVD players in it. I’ve passed the TVs, and the VCRs, and now there’s an aisle with signs saying “DVDs.” As it happens, there is not a single DVD in that entire aisle, but luckily for me, it does have plenty of DVD players.

Why has this bit of irregular polysemy arisen, such that DVD can refer to an actual DVD, or a DVD player? I speculate that it has to do with the three-letter acronym for the precursor to DVD players: VCRs. People are accustomed to using a TLA to talk about things that play their videos; DVD fits the description, so DVD player gets shortened to DVD.

Ten minutes later, as I signed up for the 4-year extended warranty, I figured the associate who was helping me had made such an easy sale that he wouldn’t object to an irrelevant question that had been on my mind for a couple of days. When my wife and I had talked about prices for DVD players, in two different conversations she’d said that someone had told her he could “put us in a 5-disc DVD player” for X amount of dollars. I’ve heard this usage of put from car salesmen, but this was the first I’d heard it generalized to the selling of other items. It sounded kind of painful, and reminded me of this Steve Martin bit. I didn’t know if my wife had been repeating the salesperson’s exact words or not, so I asked this guy if he’d ever heard any of his coworkers say it. He hadn’t, though, so that’s as far as that story goes for now.

Posted in Polysemy | 2 Comments »

I Love You, You Love Me, Barney Loves Polysemy

Posted by Neal on October 3, 2004

Now that it’s October and Halloween is on the horizon, here’s a recommendation for a Halloween video that Doug enjoyed a few years ago: Barney’s Halloween Party. Even after Doug lost interest, I still got some use out of the video when I talked about lexical semantics in an introductory linguistics course I taught. When I introduced the idea of polysemy (different but related meanings of a word, also discussed here), I played this part, where Barney is looking at a list of Halloween party items that the kids need to get:

Barney: Hmm, now let’s see what’s on Ms. Kepler’s list… a ladybug…
Curtis: She wants us to get a ladybug?!
Barney: Uh, no, there’s a ladybug on the list! Go on, now, shoo! Fly away home! Now, where was I? Oh, yes, Ms. Kepler wants us to get pumpkins, dried corn, and apples!

Hah! That Barney is something else! He took advantage of polysemy of list to crack a joke. There’s the “physical object” sense of the word, the one in play in sentences such as:

I spilled ketchup on the list.

Then there’s the “information” sense of the word, the relevant one in sentences such as:

There are ten items on the list.

Curtis naturally thought Barney was using list in its “information” sense, while Barney was secretly using it in its “physical object” sense.

Of course, in order to fool Curtis, Barney had to violate one of the rules of conversation, i.e., that you should make your contribution relevant. Curtis, assuming that Barney was being a cooperative speaker, and therefore respecting the Maxim of Relevance, had to conclude that Ms. Kepler wanted them to procure a ladybug.

In fact, there’s some other disregarding of conversational maxims in this video. Not long after the ladybug bit, Barney and his friends pay a visit to Farmer Dooley to get some of the items on the list. When they arrive, Farmer Dooley is nowhere in sight, but all of a sudden, a scarecrow perched on a fence moves, and the following dialogue ensues:

Scarecrow: Can I help you, little girl?
Hannah: (surprised) Uh, yes, sir, I guess so. Can… can you really talk?
Farmer Dooley: (emerging from behind fence) Talk? ‘Course I can talk! Why, I’ve been talking ever since I was just a little boy!

Instead of violating the Maxim of Relevance himself, Farmer Dooley plays dumb by seeming to blithely accept a violation of Relevance by Hannah. If Hannah were being a cooperative speaker, and believed she was being addressed by a normal, human speaker, the question “Can you really talk?” would be a flagrant violation of Relevance (unless it’s intended as an insult, that is). But Dooley proceeds as if no violation has occurred at all, as if it’s perfectly normal to ask your conversation partner if they can really talk.

Linguistics has deepened my appreciation for the subtle humor of Barney.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Polysemy, Quantity and Relevance | 2 Comments »

Fast-Food Polysemy

Posted by Neal on August 1, 2004

The various postings at Semantic Compositions about fast food (most recently here, but also here and here) remind me of something I’ve noticed about the semantics of the names of fast-food joints. I’ll call it fast-food polysemy. Polysemous (“many meanings”) is how linguists describe a word that has more than one meaning, but whose meanings are so close and clearly related that using the more powerful word ambiguous just seems silly. For example, slug can be a noun denoting a bullet or a disgusting shell-less gastropod, and also a verb meaning to hit. This word is clearly ambiguous. But the word bears can refer to flesh-and-blood mammals, or the cuddly bear-likenesses that tend to accumulate at sites where children have died, or pictures of either of the above. These meanings are so similar that you can argue that they’re not even separate meanings at all. It’s for this kind of almost-ambiguity that the word polysemy is used.

Fast-food polysemy turns up when people say something like, “I ate McDonald’s for lunch,” or “We had Arby’s last night.” When that happens, I always think, “Wow! When this person talks about a good place to eat, she really means it!” But of course they never mean anything as interesting as that; they just mean that they got their food there. So each name for a fast-food place can be seen as having two meanings: the place itself, and the food that is made there.

I’m guessing that fast-food polysemy is more common when the food is taken to go than when it’s eaten on site. After all, it’s about as easy to say, “We ate at Burger King” as it is to say, “We had Burger King.” But when it comes to “We had Burger King” vs. “We got some food from Burger King,” fast-food polysemy definitely simplifies things.

This polysemy doesn’t work with just any verb. Have or get works, but with eat, you have to be more careful. If someone says, “I ate McDonald’s for lunch,” it makes me pause, but if they left out the for lunch and just said, “I ate McDonald’s,” I might seriously wonder if they meant something other than eating McDonald’s food. And “He threw up his Taco Bell” just doesn’t work for me at all!

Posted in Food-related, Polysemy | 3 Comments »