Language Log asks you (don't all shout at once)

« previous post | next post »

What do support poles, staff positions, battery terminals, army encampments, blog articles, earring stems, trading stations, and snail mail have in common with billboard advertising, accounts recording, making bail, and assigning diplomats?

Now don't let's have everybody shouting at once. Form an orderly line and enter your answers below. Reload in a different window before submitting to make sure somebody didn't just give the answer you were going to give.

[Later]
OK; it took 9 minutes before the first reader (Euphorbus, below) gave the correct answer: they are all senses of the word post. I have deleted most of the comments below (they said "Post", "Post", etc., and this became boring after a while — though a few had interesting extra remarks, and I left those). I will now tell you why I posted this post about post.

I really don't do lexical semantics, but I am often struck by the astonishing degree of polysemy in English: words that have multiple meanings, sometimes recognizably if distantly related, but sometimes apparently a thousand miles away from each other conceptually.

Spectre-7 below had the right observation, exactly what was in my mind (I'm so proud of you readers; you are so smart):

But how can that be? If post can mean all of those things, readers will get hopelessly confused! One word for one meaning! Prescriptivist rage!

Yesss! Exactly the point. Prescriptivists get so concerned, so red-faced furious about the idea that a word might develop a new meaning or function, and thus have two of them. Think of the stupid kerfuffle in the 1970s about hopefully as a modal adjunct, for example: the sky was supposed to be falling because in better to travel hopefully the adverb means "with a heart full of hope" but in Hopefully they'll win the same adverb means "it is to be hoped". (Look in recent editions of Strunk & White; the paragraph about hopefully as a modal adjunct there is a flailing, incoherent, repetitive sequence of howls of rage.)

And now look at what's happened to post without anybody objecting or even noticing. Noun uses and verb uses, and more meanings for both than you can shake a stick at (I didn't even list them all; I wasn't aware about the horseriding senses, so I didn't bother to copy them out of the dictionary). It is not just ambiguous; it is outrageously, promiscuously polysemous. Fence posts, army posts, the New York Post, blog posts, ambassadorial posts, post offices… And yet the sky does not fall.

Human languages do not strive to avoid ambiguity. They do not try to align words with meanings one to one. They are not in danger of anarchy when a new word sense evolves. People don't just tolerate languages with multiply polysemous words, they seem to love them; people thrive on multiplicity of meaning. There are thousands of examples that show this. It is only the prescriptivist thickheads who cannot see what it means.

Yes, thickheads. I know they won't like being called that; but hey, what do I care? I've shut off the comments area to new contributions now, so they can't log in and accuse me of being a leftist softy with no intellectual standards failing to stand up and fight against the decay of the golden tongue of Shakespeare etc. etc. blah blah blah. Let them squirm and rage and fume, with the smoke coming out of their ears. I don't care. They're just wrong.

I like a good distinction in senses as much as the next man, and I don't care for ignorant word choice errors at all; but I don't get in a stew about it when new senses finally catch on or take over. It's the way languages are, and the way they're going to be. You have to deal with it.

Share:



8 Comments

  1. Euphorbus said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    post

  2. Spectre-7 said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    But how can that be? If post can mean all of those things, readers will get hopelessly confused! One word for one meaning! Prescriptivist rage!

  3. John Laviolette said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    Since everyone already has the correct answer, I'll merely muse about how the second group (billboard advertising, accounts recording, making bail, and assigning diplomats) have an associated verb form of "post", but only two of the first group (blog articles and snail mail) use a verb form of "post".

  4. SDS said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    John – Interesting observation, but I will point out that everything in the first group is a noun already, while the second group consists of actions.

  5. Sili said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    Not to mention placements in time later than a reference event. This is a post-"post" post (okay, comment, but where's the fun in that?).

  6. Mark F said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    I thought he was asking what the underlying commonality is that leads to them all having the same name. And I think the answer is that there doesn't have to be a single underlying commonality, but that over time the meaning of the word gets extended in different ways, depending on what people notice about the new concept that needs a name.

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    Can we call this the start of a class of "reverse snowclone"?

    X language has [fill in large number] concepts called Y, therefore it means [fill in sociological babble deep meaning of X speakers' attitude to Y].

  8. Aviatrix said,

    January 27, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    They also have it in common with riding a trotting horse.

RSS feed for comments on this post