Reader Jacob Baskin wrote with an interesting ambiguity that he was reminded of reading my recent post about "the wife and mother of two men killed in a fire". He writes
In the context of third-world development, I recently heard the factoid that "$1 in the hands of a woman is, on average, worth $10 in the hands of a man" (here, for instance).
Does this mean, "Each dollar that a woman has is worth, to her, what ten dollars would be to a man"? Or, "Each dollar that a woman has would be worth, if it were in the hands of a man, ten dollars"? Clearly the former meaning is intended, but as with that "duck/rabbit" optical illusion, I can make myself see the sentence in either way.
I'm hard pressed to think of other sentences with two possible meanings in direct opposition to each other. I also can't quite figure out what's going on with the sentence to create this ambiguity. Just thought this might be interesting to you.
Yes, it’s interesting! Here are my first thoughts, for what they’re worth. I also easily hear both meanings, (plus a third, I discovered as I wrote this) and I think both (maybe all three) patterns are probably common.
I think the difference comes from three different kinds of “filling in” that we can do. Consider first the familiar proverb:
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
This one is about what birds are worth to “me” (or to “one”, generically) depending on where they are. Having one bird in the hand is worth (to me) having two birds nearby but not in my hand. I guess it can also be paraphrased as “A bird, if it’s in my hand, is worth (to me) what two birds are worth (to me) if they’re in the bush”. So we’re figuring out the comparative value to one individual of a bird in two different locations.
For a second kind of meaning I don’t know a proverb, but googling on “one dollar in the hands of” turns up quite a number of examples, some with different structure that makes the second meaning clear. Here’s one:
— This blog post is touching, and it happens to add rich detail about the intended meaning:
What is one dollar to us? What is one dollar to those poor Cambodians? When we spend one dollar, they earn one dollar. We will be one dollar poorer while they will be one dollar richer. However, being one dollar poorer can hardly ever affect our standards of living in any way; while one dollar richer can make a significant difference to a poor fellow Cambodian for a day or two.
That blogger (who is Malaysian) could have said, using Jacob’s construction,
One dollar in the hands of a poor Cambodian is worth fifty dollars (or whatever) in the hands of a Malaysian.
And there we’re switching the implicit argument of worth, I think: What a dollar in the hands of a Cambodian is worth to the Cambodian is the same as what fifty dollars in the hands of a Malaysian is worth to the Malaysian.
And that’s very different from the ‘bird in the hand’ reading, where we keep the “worth-to” person constant and consider the value to them of these dollars (or birds) when they’re in different locations.
And now I think there’s a third reading different still. Suppose I read the Cambodian example a different way:
Having one dollar in the hands of a Cambodian is worth (to the world? to ‘impact on economic development’? in ‘real value’ (whatever that means)?) having fifty dollars in the hands of a Malaysian.
That’s a meaning that might be of interest to prospective donors – you would do more good giving your dollar to a Cambodian. Oh, and that’s most likely the intention in Jacob’s original post: it’s probably suggesting that directing aid to women will have more economic impact than directing the same amount of aid to men. (That wasn’t the intention in the original source of the Cambodian example, though, where the Malaysian was a tourist discussing the enterprising Cambodian children selling ten postcards for a dollar, etc., and thinking of arguments for buying from them even when you didn’t really want more postcards.)
So there are at least three possibilities, and they all seem to revolve around the implicit argument of worth – worth to whom?
I haven’t worked on these constructions and what I just said is not a linguistic analysis, just what I would take as a starting point, trying to figure out what the different meanings are and where one might look for some implicit material that leads to the ambiguity.
Summarizing: The construction has the surface form “NP1 in Location 1 is worth NP2 in Location 2”, where “NP” means a noun phrase like “a bird” or “one dollar”.
Reading A: For the speaker, or a generic individual, or for some understood individual, call him/her S, NP1, if it’s in Location 1, is worth as much to S as NP2 is if it’s in Location 2.
(And in this case, both location descriptions may be “anchored” to S. So “in the hand” is “in S’s hand”, and “in the bush” is “in the bush in the vicinity of S”)
Reading B: Location 1 is anchored to Person 1 and Location 2 is anchored to Person 2, and the sentence means: NP1 in Location 1 is worth as much to Person 1 as NP2 in Location 2 is worth to Person 2.
Reading C: NP1 in Location 1 is worth as much [in some neutral system of values, like “to economic development”] as NP2 in Location 2.
Since the “Location n” might be “in the hands of Person n”, that seems to help make it easy to slide from one meaning to another. I think the real “culprit” is the missing argument of “worth”: “me” or “one” in Reading A, Person 1 vs Person 2 in Reading B, and some neutral value like “the world” in Reading C.