A stick tower by any other name

« previous post | next post »

Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "Stay warm, little flappers, and find lots of plant eggs!"

An amusing reminder of a serious issue: most compounds and phrasal collocations are used in ways that are consistent with their compositional meaning, but not entirely predictable from it. "Solar cell" doesn't mean "tanning bed"; "drainage basin" doesn't mean "mop bucket"; "forest canopy" doesn't mean "camping tent"; etc.

And for that matter, the range of individual words' usage is hard to predict, as everyone who has ever studied a new language knows.


  1. D.O. said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    Is "plant egg" not so subtle eggcorn allusion?

  2. cats said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 10:18 am

    Reminds me of Salad Fingers. "You're absolutely right Marjorie, the floor sugar does taste rather queer in this area." http://fat-pie.com/salad7.htm

  3. richardelguru said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 11:22 am

    "Because, pshh, who would want to do that, right? Also, snowfall records."
    Extending the WOTY?

  4. Walter Heukels said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 11:58 am

    I was really surprised to see "solar systems" for sale in Australia… meaning solar panels, not stars and planets.

  5. Lazar said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

    This is a problem for conlangs like Esperanto which attempt to ease the learner's burden by limiting the number of roots and relying heavily on compounding and affixation: you may not have to learn as many morphemes, but you have to learn more idiomatic meanings instead.

  6. fs said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

    One cold night I called my ineffective heater a 'mealy-mouthed makewarm.'

  7. Cygil said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

    A women with a German husband once wrote that her husband rebelled against using the English 'glove', finding "handschuhe" — "hand-shoe" so much more logical. I wonder how many readers of the strip realize the cognitive estrangement they are experiencing is what learning a different language is like — and it describes a logically possible English-like language out there with a community who finds every expression in the strip completely normal and logical.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

    The beeping flappy planes were probably devil downheads—unless this took place across the whale-road.

  9. Max said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

    Cygil, I arrived in Germany just a couple weeks before Halloween with no knowledge of German except for what could be derived from its close relations English and Afrikaans, and needed a latex glove for a Halloween costume. So you can imagine how pleased I was when the shopkeeper replied to "Ich suche "<gesture of putting on gloves>" with "Handschuhe?" and I could, having never heard the word before, say "ja, genau".

    (In the end they only sold hundred-packs, which was about 199 gloves more than I needed, but then in the next shop I could say "Ich suche Handschuhe")

  10. Max said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

    "Ich suche " should be "Ich suche [gesture of putting on gloves]" but I used angle brackets.

    In HTML-land, angle brackers are &lt; and &gt; (where &X; means "some kind of character entity" and X=lt mean "less than", X=gt means "greater than" …]

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    Then there's the old one about the foreign student of German who not remembering the word for "shoe" but knowing the word for "glove" guessed that the former might by analogy be "Fusshandschuhe."

  12. Emily said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    @Walter Heukels: That term isn't just used in Australia. I live in Southern California and I once received a telemarketer call advertising "home solar systems." Alas, I don't have the space for one.

  13. peterv said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

    Max — Who on earth buys 100 pairs of gloves at a time? And why?

  14. William Ockham said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 6:31 pm


    100 pairs of latex gloves? Doctor's offices for one. My wife is a physician and she probably goes through 20-30 pair per day. Although she's changed to the non-latex gloves. Which are actually sold as non-latex gloves. Seems weird to define a product as what they aren't made of.

  15. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 7:46 pm

    When my granddaughter Leah was about 3 years old, she got upset about something and was crying in her bed. My daughter went into her bedroom to console her, and Leah said, "Look, Mommy, my pillow is all wet from my cry water." She did not yet know the word "tears."

  16. David Morris said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 8:26 pm

    I always encourage my students to combine the words they know rather than not speak, or stop speaking because they don't. Some students even interrupt a sentence to look up a word in a dictionary or translator.
    One day a student was visibly ailing, so I asked what was wrong. She said she had 'a woman's stomach ache'.

  17. Jeff said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 9:06 pm


    Mechanics, too. When you work with oil / brake fluid / solvents / etc. it's not only messy but also sometimes toxic (Nitrile gloves are best).

  18. NSBK said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 9:08 pm

    @William Ockham
    I believe with gloves there is the possibility of having an allergy to latex, in which case you'd like to know that the gloves you're buying aren't made with it. Not sure why they wouldn't specify what it IS made out of, in case you also have an allergy to that other material, but maybe that's too rare to worry about.

  19. OrenWithAnE said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

    Not if you call them stench-blossoms.

  20. Chris C. said,

    January 27, 2014 @ 10:23 pm

    @NSBK — The alternatives to latex are either vinyl or nitrile rubber, neither of which are known to be allergens — or if they are, they're far less prevalent than latex.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 1:08 am

    @David Morris

    Combining the words you know is a great concept, but it never seems to work out for me. Just as a fun exercise, here's how I do with knowledge of the vocabulary used in the strip vs. the "correct" vocabulary, in Chinese:

    "The sky is cold" – actually seems like OK english to me, but hey, I can say this. The more correct version "it's cold" doesn't have an obvious equivalent that I know of; I've thought of "the weather is cold" and "I'm cold" as approximations, both of which I can say. There's also "today is cold". This is all specific enough that I wouldn't consider myself to be reaching for approximations.

    "the floor water" – I can say this, but I can also say the definitely better "the water on the ground"

    "is too hard to drink" – I can say this, but I'd be more likely to say "is hard". I cannot say "is solid" or "has frozen" but can say "has turned to ice".

    "handcoats" – not only can I say this, I don't know the correct word for gloves. This is a winner! In fact, I once asked a store employee where I could find "hand clothes".

    "the spacelight" – I can say this, but it's easier to say "the sun".

    "the flappy planes" – I can say "planes", but know no word for "flappy". On the other hand, I do know the word for "birds".

    "are beeping" – no idea. I don't know how to represent a beeping sound, nor the correct word for birdsong. I can say that they're "singing" (and heck, for all I know that *is* the correct thing), though, so I'll count this as another win for approximation.

    "in the stick towers" – I can't say "stick" or "tower", but I do know the word for "tree".

    It happens to me so, so often that I'll come up with a meaning and realize I can't even begin to put it into words. My problem isn't that I have a full complement of "child concepts" but no adult vocabulary; it's that I have huge gaping holes riddling my vocabulary.

    I did once have a student tell me she was menstruating (and therefore needed to visit the bathroom), but she didn't call it a "woman's stomach ache"; she said it was her "special day".

  22. Nat said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 1:53 am

    Oh. I thought "flappy planes" were rustling leaves. It wasn't clear why their susurrations were described as "beeping", but (geometrical) "planes" for leaves seemed very like xkcd to me.

  23. Thomas Thurman said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 6:30 am

    Until Jerry Friedman mentioned "whale-road" I had failed to connect this strip with the concept of kennings. Thank you!

  24. Rodger C said,

    January 28, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    Beeping leaves reminds me of Waley's Shi Jing where he represents the sound of falling leaves as "Zip, zip!" I'm sure he would have justified it by saying "Well, in my reading of Old Chinese …" and then go back to blaming Pound for not conveying the plain sense.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

    It looks like "Zip, zip" was actually Waley's sound of the valley wind (link).

    Thomas: Glad my comment was useful!

  26. Ken Brown said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

    You beat me to it Thomas! The whale road, the swan's road. These are kennings. The Younger Edda is a textbook to teach this stuff to mediaeval Icelanders :-)

  27. Bloix said,

    January 29, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

    Then there's the old one about the foreign student of German who not remembering the word for "shoe" but knowing the word for "glove" guessed that the former might by analogy be "Fusshandschuhe."

    I swear on my mother's life that this is a true story:

    In Hebrew, shorts, not surprisingly, are "short pants" (or short trousers, for the Brits among us who find "pants" hilarious). In my year on a kibbutz, I and the other volunteers were issued cotton duck work clothes for field work, with shorts. But I was assigned to the metal shop, with welding sparks and propane torch flames, and I needed pants. So I went to the kibbutz clothing depot and asked in my stumbling way for a pair of long short-pants.

    I still don't know how I managed that, as in Hebrew "long short-pants" is 10 syllables long.

  28. Rodger C said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 8:22 am

    @Jerry Friedman: Thanks. As usual these days, my decades-old memory is inaccurate. I must say I find zippy wind nearly as bizarre.

  29. Greg Malivuk said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    I loved this comic, and have printed it out for all my ESL classes. I tell students that, at least while we're in class, I would much rather they produce novel mistakes like this, which show they're actively thinking about the language, than the kinds of mistakes that come from throwing something at Google Translate and going with the top result.

RSS feed for comments on this post