Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘You’re so literal!’ Category

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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Posted in You're so literal! | 4 Comments »

There They Go Again —

Posted by Neal on November 5, 2007

— people saying that Amelia Bedelia always takes things literally! Didn’t we cover this already? Given an utterance with more than one meaning, Amelia Bedelia always chooses the interpretation of maximum funniness, one which disregards contextual or social clues, and which may or may not be a literal interpretation. Just because an interpretation is funny doesn’t mean it’s literal. And as my wife and sons can attest, just because it’s literal doesn’t mean it’s funny.

This business of literal meanings reminds me of something I heard on an episode of NPR’s Science Friday from September. I wasn’t going to say anything, I was just going to let it go, but since I’m on the subject…

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Posted in Kids' entertainment, You're so literal! | 8 Comments »

Please Stand By

Posted by Neal on August 9, 2007

A humorous anecdote involving someone else’s literal thinking.

Posted in You're so literal! | 2 Comments »

20 Questions, and Irreflexive In

Posted by Neal on August 8, 2007

Doug and Adam and I were playing 20 Questions while we waited for our food to arrive one night. The domain was places; the game went down something like this… [cue harp music]

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Posted in Pragmatics, Semantics, The darndest things, You're so literal! | 2 Comments »

Fully Frontally Nude

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2007

We went to see The Simpsons Movie (shouldn’t it be The The Simpsons Movie) last week. Of course, since it was a PG-13 movie, we checked the parent-oriented reviews. It seemed like the main thing that bumped it from PG to PG-13 scene was some full frontal nudity, so I figured it was OK. The author of the review had an annoying habit of referring to the relevant scene as the “full-frontal scene.” Is nudity the only thing that can be fully frontal? What about assaults, lobotomies, and snogging?

One spoiler follows.

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Posted in Diachronic, Movies, Pragmatics, You're so literal! | 7 Comments »

Don’t Do Me Any Favorites

Posted by Neal on July 10, 2007

Hey, if you think I take things literally, check out this post from Bill Walsh.

OK, I have to come clean. Although I didn’t actually say in that last sentence that Bill Walsh takes things more literally than I do, I am aware that it’s just possible that readers might get that idea from my use of the “If you think X has property Y, you should see Z” frame. So in the interest of full disclosure: I’m just as literal-minded as Walsh is on this one. I agree with everything in the post, and with the comments people had made by the time I read it.

Posted in You're so literal! | 2 Comments »

Fossil Foolish

Posted by Neal on June 30, 2007

The boys and I were watching a 3-D movie about dinosaurs on the giant screen at the local science museum today, when all of a sudden I got that kind of uncomfortable feeling, a sense that something wasn’t quite right. What was it? Part of a popcorn kernel stuck in my teeth? Were my 3-D glasses sliding down? No, I realized, it was something the narrator had said. He had been telling how the best fossils formed when animals (or plants) were quickly buried, so that their remains would be

…undiscovered by predators or damaged by erosion.

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Posted in Morphology, Semantics, Syntax, You're so literal! | 1 Comment »

You Don’t Have to Be Literal-Minded to Be Funny!

Posted by Neal on March 18, 2007

And yes, I know: Just because you’re literal-minded doesn’t mean you’re funny. Now that that’s out of the way…

When I was a kid, there were one or two occasions when a school librarian or a teacher or someone read the class a book about Amelia Bedelia. I thought they were OK, but not interesting enough for me to seek out any others to read. However, I read several more of them a few years ago, not just because I now have kids to read them to, but because these books are often specifically recommended as a good way for parents to teach kids about autism. The reason is that most of the humor in the books comes from Amelia Bedelia taking things literally. In almost every description or review of these books, this trait of Amelia Bedelia’s is brought up, and very often it’s true. I’m surprised I never noticed it in the one or two A.B. books that were read to me as a kid. All I remember thinking is, “Ha, ha, Amelia Bedelia sure is dumb!”

But one thing nags at me a little bit when I read these reviews or recommendations that talk about how literal-minded Amelia Bedelia is. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Kids' entertainment, You're so literal! | 4 Comments »

Go… Bucks?

Posted by Neal on November 18, 2006

When I first moved to Ohio, I’d thought they were crazy about football at the University of Texas, but I soon revised my estimation. I went to some campus-area bars with some guys I’d met in my dorm and in each one they were playing the Ohio State fight song, and, for some reason they also were very fond of some song from the 60s called “Hang On, Sloopy.” My roommate had to educate me about OSU football, telling me about some guy that used to coach here named Woody Hayes (ah, he must be who they named Woody Hayes Drive after), about the fans (including my roommate) in Block O, and all about some big rivalry that OSU had with the University of Michigan.

Growing up here, Doug is getting a thorough Ohio acculturation, including OSU football appreciation. He and his mom sometimes watch the OSU game on TV, and I’ve even heard him say things like, “Third and TWELVE?! Oh, man!” He and she were watching the game one Saturday last month, while I looked on from the kitchen, where I was peeling apples for a pie. “Hey! What’s wrong with this picture?” my wife said at one point. Hey, that was nothing. Doug even went to a Buckeye football game a few weeks ago, not with me, who graduated from OSU, but with his mom! And his acculturation continues at school, where he’s soaking up the anti-Michigan spirit. Yesterday, the dress-code restriction on anything written on shirts was temporarily lifted, so that on the last day of “Michigan week,” kids could wear their Buckeye gear… or Michigan stuff, to be fair. A few kids did, but other, less confident ones (including at least one friend of Doug’s) pretend to be OSU fans among their classmates and root for Michigan in the privacy of their homes.

So here it is the day of the OSU-Michigan game, with the undefeated #1 and undefeated #2 teams in the nation (see, I know these things now!) facing each other in a few hours, and all week, I’ve been hearing “Go, Bucks!” even more than usual in Ohio in the fall. I was aware that Ohio was known as the Buckeye State before moving here, and I think I even knew that the OSU team was known as the Buckeyes. But even after living through 15 football seasons, the phrase Go, Bucks! is a little strange to me.

I learned that the buckeye was the nut from a tree that was common in Ohio, so named because it resembled the eye of a buck.


OK, so buckeye was created by compounding. So far, so good. And the football team (and other teams) from Ohio State University were called buckeyes because Ohio was the buckeye state. Fine. But when I take a compound word apart, it doesn’t have the meaning of the whole compound. I can’t call a doghouse a dog, or an apple pie an apple, or a TV dinner a TV. So when people refer to the Buckeye football team as the Bucks, I wonder why it doesn’t bother them that they’re making it sound like OSU’s mascot is a male deer instead of a nut that resembles the eye of a male deer.

On the other hand, State of the Union can be synonymous with State of the Union address; Grand Slam with Grand Slam tournament; and molest with sexually molest, so why am I complaining? Actually, though, I don’t think this is a case of one word in a compound absorbing the meaning of the entire compound. If it were, I think buck would refer to actual buckeye nuts, but I’ve never heard anyone call a buckeye nuts a buck. People make necklaces out of buckeyes to wear to the games and tailgate parties, but they’re called buckeye necklaces, not buck necklaces. I think buck meaning “member of an OSU sports team” is a case of the word being shortened (linguists refer to it as clipping) without regard to whether it’s a compound, acronym, or anything else. In other words, buckeye went on referring to buckeye nuts, while Buckeye formed its semi-independent meaning solidly associated with OSU sports teams before getting shortened to Buck. Etymology is not destiny, as they say.

Posted in Compound words, Lexical semantics, Ohioana, Sports, You're so literal! | 4 Comments »

Warm, If Not Miserable

Posted by Neal on October 31, 2006

As Doug and I walked the neighborhood this evening in our respective cockroach and chicken costumes, Doug hefted his trick-or-treat bag and mused: “This candy can last until April, and then I always get some candy for Easter, and I’m always invited to akleast a couple of birthday parties in a year where they give candy in a goody bag, so I always have candy!”

Inwardly, I chuckled bitterly. I remember wishing as a kid that I could have a drawer devoted to a candy stash that I could enjoy anytime I wanted. Wouldn’t that be great? And it’d be awesome if I could be invisible, too, or had the power of teleportation. Now, here’s Doug, rejoicing in his very own candy drawer. At least he’s not taking it for granted, and he handles having one better than I would have. When there’s candy around, I keep coming around and eating it until it’s gone. While it’s still there, it feels like a job undone. Doug’s candy really can stay in his candy drawer for months, with him eating just a piece or two every now and then.

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Posted in Ambiguity, You're so literal! | 4 Comments »