Glamour, disrobing, and successful execution

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What is the connection between (a) successfully executing something tricky that not everyone could get away with, like an escape or an acrobatic maneuver or a daring sartorial fashion statement, and (b) removing by tugging, stripping, or peeling?

Rather than set it as a quiz and waiting for the answers to come in, let me just supply the following sentence that Daniel Deutsch saw in the New York Times:

With flowing black hair and a remarkable ability to pull off form-fitting black leather pants, Ms. Chang is a particularly glamorous ambassador of an art form not necessarily associated with lipstick and glitz.

Could the glamorous Ms. Chang really be noted for her prowess at tearing off her black leather pants? One assumes that only her most intimate friends would know how good she is at getting undressed; even a glamorous art ambassador — even Lady Gaga — doesn't customarily do that in public. (And Ms. Chang is not in the same area of the arts as Lady Gaga; she is a poet — Tina Chang, the poet laureate of Brooklyn.) So intended claim was surely the less dramatic one, illustrating not meaning (b) but merely meaning (a): that while you or I or the average poet might look silly in tight black leather pants, Ms. Chang succeeds in looking good in them.

But how remarkable it is that the writer chose the pull ___ off verb-preposition combination here without (one assumes) noticing the double entendre, and without the editors noticing it either. As I believe I may have said before, it is really remarkable how much polysemy and ambiguity we tolerate during every single minute we listen to our language — and how little regard utterers pay to the business of ensuring that the addressee will not misunderstand.

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11 Comments »

  1. Sarah said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    Is it not possible that this writer chose to play with the duplicity of meanings and implications of the phrase "pull … off"? Particularly in the context of a discussion of leather pants and glamour, it seems that the writer was trying to have some fun. The result is a clumsy sentence that objectifies rather than flatters the poetess in question, but it does strike me that the writer knew what she was doing.

  2. empty said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    Just yesterday I was greatly puzzled by the written expression "We went over the designated time" in an email that I received from someone I had attending a meeting with. For some reason, in spite of contextual clues I somehow couldn't get past the "discussed thoroughly" sense of "went over" and never thought of the "exceeded" sense.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    I wouldn't be so sure the editor didn't notice and the writer didn't notice or intend the other meaning.

  4. Jen said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    The "take off" sense of "pull off" didn't even occur to me until re-reading the quoted sentence thoroughly.

    Googling "can pull off" in particular makes clear that this phrase is used basically exclusively with this meaning- succeeding where failure was expected. (Mostly in the realm of sports upsets and fashion.) Perhaps "pull off" in isolation could be misinterpreted, but I don't think any native speaker would misunderstand "can pull off." There might be ambiguity as a technical matter, but not as a practical one.

    Perhaps my view is shaped by my constant reading of fashion articles and blogs, where "pull off" with respect to clothes basically always refers to looking good when others might not.

  5. Marion Crane said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    Oh, this reminds me of the Friends episode where Rachel's sister comes to visit and borrows one of Rachel's shirts without asking. She justifies it by saying, 'Oh, you can't pull this off, anyway.' (intending the above meaning a). However, the translator working on this episode's subtitles must not have been aware of this, and translated it as 'jij kan dit toch niet uittrekken' (a very very mild version of meaning b).
    The mistake was funnier to me than the entire episode.

  6. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 27, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    Another sort of double entendre on "pull it off" is attributed to Patrick White in David Marr's biography of him, but I can't find the book just now and so I'm sorry I can't quote it. It's a play between sense a and an off-colour sense c.

  7. oliver said,

    March 28, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

    "Tolerate" the ambiguity? Indulging, exploiting and reveling in it seems more likely to me, at least in this instance, and for everybody but a minority of the intended readers of the news copy. This is word play, but also an instance of how we all evoke extra connotations implicitly in speech and writing–both spontaneously ( "unconsciously") as well as (in writing especially) conscientiously and with intent. These are only pseudo-ambiguities. But they are a real and common tool for publishing ideas or expressing views deniably. "Insinuating" I guess would be a ready word for it. That's what we "tolerate," even as we all perpetrate it to some degree.

  8. Christy said,

    March 29, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    Would the writer have made the same comment if it was Tim Chang instead of Tina Chang? I doubt it.

  9. Stacy said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    I've made this mistake many times – when I was trying on pants, a friend remarked "They're funky – can you pull them off?" At which point I proceeded to attempt to remove them and found that they were very tight and replied that no, I could not, I had to unbutton them first.

  10. ...just don't call me late for dinner! said,

    March 31, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    Christy, that's because very few Tim Changs can "pull off" wearing black leather pants in everyday society.

  11. Dora said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    I'm no linguist, but as a reader of fashion blogs, I really don't think this is ambiguous. When talking about fashion, after "pull off" comes a description of a type of clothing, and the meaning is only that someone is able or unable to look good in them. It's used very commonly because the discussion often revolves around someone's ability to look attractive in clothing that is original/weird. You could look at all these uses as double entendres, intentional or otherwise, but I don't think that makes sense anymore.

    [(amz) Linguists (and philosophers of language) are accustomed to talking of ambiguity as a property of expressions, independent of contexts or users; to be scrupulous, we sometimes talk of this as potential ambiguity. In non-technical usage, people often use ambiguity to refer to effective ambiguity, which is a relation between expressions, contexts, and users (especially hearers or readers). As we repeatedly point out on Language Log, potential ambiguity is everywhere, but only rarely does it result in effective ambiguity (though what counts as an effective ambiguity depends in part on the experiences and expectations of the hearer/reader -- as in your case).]

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