First American Dies of Swine Flu

« previous post | next post »

Here's what I heard today on my local National Public Radio station:  "The first American has died of swine flu." And also, for clarification, "The first American has died of H1N1." But who is or was the first American, I mused, heartlessly, while being an asshole in the defenseless Texan evening traffic. Obama? Benjamin Franklin? Some spear-wielding mastodon hunter? At any rate, not the unfortunate woman who just died.

Background: Several cyber-aeons ago (last week, in fact) Mark Liberman blogged about the "first" ambiguity. Horror of horrors, the sentence "Who was the first president born in the twentieth century?" is ambiguous: first to become president, or first to be born. But the example I heard as I was driving home from work (and, btw, this post's title is the headline of the NYT variant of the NPR story) perfectly illustrates the fact that the problem with "first" is worse. Much, much worse.

You see, the terms of Mark's post and the many ensuing comments seemed to hint that although there is an ambiguity, in principle there are just a few possible readings, two maybe, and that these alternatives are recoverable by scrutinizing the form of the sentence. Well, practically speaking there often are only one or two reasonable alternatives, and scrutinizing the sentence in question might well be enough to tell you what they are. But, looking at the sentence is not always enough, and n may be bigger than 2. A lot bigger.

In general, "the first X" means "the example of an X that was first to achieve Y". In simple cases, Y is just reaching a state in which the description X is appropriate. Thus "the first president" can refer to Washington because it means: the example of a president who was first to achieve a state in which "president" was an accurate description. (That's a long way of saying something very simple, but bear with me!) Mark's reader's example complicated things a little, because X  was a complex expression – "president born in the twentieth century". So now you get an ambiguity, you can choose Y to be becoming president, or being born, although for many people one reading is much more salient than the other. The thing is, however, that there need not be anything in the X noun phrase which says what Y is.

In my radio example, Y is not taken from the X noun phrase at all, but from a following verb phrase which is clearly not part of the same noun phrase as "first". The verb phrase is "has died of swine flu". And the pattern of choosing Y from a following verb phrase is not uncommon. In fact, I heard the linguist Jeff Pelletier talk about a variant some years ago as a potential counterexample to the principle linguists and philosophers of language term compositionality (the principle that the meaning of complex expressions is completely predictable from the meanings of the parts and the way they're put together). His example was "The first man walked on the moon in 1969", which doesn't refer to Adam. It's easy to find more examples where Y is not drawn from X but from a following verb phrase. Here's another one with X=American:

When the first American was killed by robots, there were 13000 robots in in industrial use in the United States. [link]

But things really are worse still. The Y achievement need not even come from the same sentential clause as the "first". So it is that for all of the following examples, you have no way of being sure what "the first American" was first at without taking a look at the linked documents to see what was on the writer's mind (although you might like to see if you can guess 5 out of 5):

The first American was Joe Organ, in seventh place, and… [link]

The first American was Wilhelm Heinrich Keating from Philadelphia who came to Freiberg in 1819. [link]

The first American was one Thomas Littlejohn from near Edinburgh, who came to the New World about 1735. [link]

The first American was injured on October 2, 1957. [link]

The first American was Burt Reynolds, naked on a bearskin rug with a big cigar. [link]

To the extent that ambiguity of a sentence is taken to imply a choice between a certain fixed set of readings, sentences with "the first" in them are not simply ambiguous. For the range of possible interpretations is potentially infinite, depending on what achievements Y happen to be particularly salient in the context of writing or utterance. "The first X" is not so much ambiguous as completely and utterly underspecified as regards what the X in question is first at. A fine distinction you might say, but I think it's worth separating n=2 from n→∞. 



  1. Noetica said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 2:35 am

    (Just to fill out the story. I might have more to say later:)

    I suppose we should add to the mix First American meaning "Aboriginal American". (As an Australian I am not up with the latest politically correct terms in America, so bear with me! But see a provisional example of such usage here.) So a headline "First American dies of swine flu" might mean "Aboriginal American dies of swine flu", without any suggestion that the epithet first applies individually to the person in question. She might, for example, be the seventeenth "First American" to die of swine flu, and the headline would still work.

  2. Noetica said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 3:06 am

    David, I have no way of discovering whether your link involving Burt Reynolds has anything to do with his Cherokee ancestry. That source is not available even in snippet form. What is it about, in fact?

    [I guess Google Books results aren't served up everywhere. The answer is: a centerfold. -dib]

    Just for the record, a definite literary use of First American, in the singular: A First American views his land, by N. Scott Momaday.

  3. Popup said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 3:49 am

    At the same time the unfortunate Mexicans who died are also 'Americans' (i.e. inhabitants of the American continent(s), just not the United States).

  4. D.O. said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 4:23 am

    FWIW, I guessed the (general) meaning of 4 quotes out of 5 correctly, but failed to produce even a reasonable guess for the 3rd quote. I am so not into the genealogy!

  5. Kapitano said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 4:33 am

    An obvious footnote: There's a similar ambiguity with "The last American".

    "The last American has died of swine flu", could mean "All Americans are now dead, because the final one was killed by swine flu" or "There will be no further American deaths from swine flu because the final death has occured."

  6. Nicholas Waller said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 5:11 am

    According to Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men we're all First Men, now and for some considerable time into the future.

    "The first man walked on the moon in 1969" is reasonable if ambiguous shorthand for "The first man to walk on the moon walked on the moon in 1969," where what he is first at is clear.

    There's a different ambiguity for "the last man on the moon" not resolved by saying "the last man to walk on the moon walked on the moon in 1972". On Apollo 17, Harrison Schmitt became the 12th and last man to walk on the moon (so far). But The Last Man On The Moon (the title of his autobiography) is Eugene Cernan, the 11th man on the moon. (Schmitt got back into the lunar module first, leaving Cernan as the last man off the moon's surface).

  7. Noetica said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 7:14 am

    Yes, last is hopelessly ambiguous. Worse than first, and almost as dangerous as next. Fabricated examples:

    "The last chapter deals with the Proto-Germanic background; but here we examine the lexis of Gothic itself."

    I would at least edit that to …preceding chapter… or …previous chapter…; or …last chapter of this book… or final chapter, if that were meant.

    "Was he here last Saturday?"

    With likelihoods depending on the weekday on which the utterance is issued, last Saturday could refer to the immediately preceding Saturday, or it could refer to the Saturday before that. This certainly applies in Australian English, though most speakers are unaware of any difficulty, automatically cleaving to one interpretation or the other. Said on Sunday, it would refer to the earlier option – eight days ago – because otherwise the speaker would almost certainly have said "yesterday". Said on Thursday or Friday, probably the later Saturday would be intended; but the matter is still vague.

    "I'll be here next Saturday."

    Worse, because with next we set up appointments that can be missed through misunderstanding. This is a genuine difficulty in Australian English, and I advise my clients and students to avoid it! Especially risky on Wednesday or Thursday. (O yes: it's a finely calibrated affair.)

    With both last and next for days, if the nearer day is meant then omitting the qualification usually disambiguates:

    "Was he here on Saturday?"

    "I'll be here on Saturday."

    (In Australia we are less likely to omit the on: [?]"I'll be here Saturday".)

    If the more distant day is meant, we can disambiguate with such turns as Saturday week, Saturday of next week, two Saturdays ago, Saturday of last week, and so on. But then, beware the ambiguity of calendar weeks, which notoriously start with different days for different folks.

  8. Noetica said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 7:18 am

    Said on Thursday or Friday, probably the later Saturday would be intended; …

    Argh! I dangled! Correction:

    Said on Thursday or Friday, it would probably refer to the later Saturday; …

  9. Larry Lard said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 8:13 am

    It seems to me that the ambiguity is caused by the fact that the adjective 'first' is *attached* in each case to the *agent*, whereas it *refers* to the implied *action*. So what we actually mean by "The first *man* walked on the moon in 1969" could be clunkily but more precisely expressed by "The first *walking* on the Moon by a man on the Moon was in 1969"; "When the first *American* was killed by robots…" as "When the first *killing* of an American by robots…".

    I can picture in my mind's eye a language where that structure might indeed be how such thoughts are expressed; perhaps one of those agglutinative ones.

  10. John Cowan said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    I think that this property of first, next, and last applies to all superlatives: the oldest man might be some early member of genus Homo, or the man who died at the most advanced age, or the man currently living whose first birthday was longest ago, or simply the man of the greatest age who ran in the last Boston Marathon. Or whatever.

    And the three words above are historically superlatives: it's no coincidence that their phonetic shape ends in /st/. The positive and comparative forms of first are long lost, but next is the old superlative of nigh (whose old comparative form near lost its comparative force and mostly replaced nigh, and then grew regular forms nearer, -est), and as for last, it's a mere doublet of latest.

  11. Mark P said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    Noetica, it's not just Australian English that has the "last Saturday" or "next Saturday" ambiguity. I hear it in the US often. The funny thing is that almost everyone who uses that type of term recognizes the ambiguity and often ends up trying to clarify it right after saying it.

    And, Popup, when was the last time you heard a Mexican (or anyone other than a citizen or resident of the US) referred to (or refer to himself) as an American?

  12. Faldone said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    The ambiguity of 'last' can be demonstrated with the sentence "each test was more difficult than the last and the last was the most difficult of all."

  13. ajay said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    Which all reminds me of the old joke:

    "Did you meet your father at the railway station?"
    "No, we've known each other for years."

  14. Ellen said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    Noetica, while I'll buy the argument that for some folks "first American" or "a first American" can refer to a Native American (leaving the capitalization issue aside), "the first American" cannot. (Not unless it's referring back to a specific previously named individual and functioning somewhat like a pronoun.)

  15. Johanne D said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    I had this to translate a few minutes ago: "New customers – first 60 days get routed to ABC Co." (This type of ellipsis is par for the course in a bullet point format.)

    I can't tell if the ambiguity exists in English, but I think I created one in French (because we prefer temporal phrases to be at the beginning of the sentence): « Pendant les 60 premiers jours, les appels des nouveaux clients sont acheminés à ABC Co. »

    The sentence doesn't mention what « les 60 premiers jours » refers to (a subscription) – it could be anything.

    So, reading LL this morning made my day more interesting!

  16. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    On last and next (also this) in combination with time nouns (next/this/last Saturday, etc.): the variety of interpretations for such combinations has been mentioned in the literature for some time (perhaps most famously in Fillmore's lectures on deixis (originally 1975, then 1997)), and the problem seems to be not so much a matter of an ambiguity in the modifiers themselves as an uncertainty as to the time spans they are interpreted with respect to. This is a separate issue from the ambiguity of last 'most recent' or 'final' and is more like David Beaver's original examples of things like first American, interpreted with respect to different elements of the context (though much more limited in scope than Beaver's cases, and not collapsible with them). (And First American 'native American, American Indian' is something else again.)

    The point is that there are a number of distinct phenomena here, which happen to involve some of the same lexical items.

  17. acilius said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    @Nicholas Waller: Since Colonel Cernan and Professor Schmitt rode to the Moon in the same Lunar Module, they arrived on the Moon simultaneously and left it simultaneously. Therefore, they shared the distinction of "the last man on the Moon." However, Professor Schmitt was still in his seat when Colonel Cernan left the lunar module and began his first Extra-Vehicular Activity. So Colonel Cernan was the 11th of 12 men to have walked on the Moon. Professor Schimtt was already back in his seat when the colonel concluded his last EVA, and so the colonel was also the last of those 12 to have walked there.

  18. Jim said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    "The positive and comparative forms of first are long lost, "


  19. Freddy Hill said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    Since "first" may also refer to rank, I take "The first American" to mean "Obama."

  20. Simon Cauchi said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    Goodness me, I learn from my Concise Dictionary of Etymology that "first" is cognate with German "Fürst", meaning "prince", which is cognate with . . . one could go on. The differences in meaning and — I can't think of the right word, social status, as it were — between German and English cognates can be fascinating. Compare Knecht/knight, selig/silly, etc.

  21. Ken Grabach said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    In my humble opinion, this ambiguity can be discussed at this length, only because you understand the meaning of the speaker who uttered the phrase. Or as was discussed in the previous post, "Wait, what?"

  22. Neal Whitman said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    I'm reminded of the similar ambiguity in "[verb] one's first [noun]": 10 years ago, my son cut his first tooth (an upper incisor). Four years ago, he lost his first tooth (a lower incisor). How is this possible?

  23. Noetica said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 7:07 pm


    …"the first American" cannot [refer to a Native American]. (Not unless it's referring back to a specific previously named individual and functioning somewhat like a pronoun.)

    Surely that's no more so than with the American, the woman, the Rhode Island separatist, or what you will – except that the [F]irst American (in the relevant sense) is less commonly needed in use than the American or the woman, and more ambiguous (and so more likely actively to be avoided in use) than the far less common the Rhode Island separatist.


    The point is that there are a number of distinct phenomena here, which happen to involve some of the same lexical items.

    Yes, I like this summary sentence of yours. That heterogeneity is already essential to David's examples, and is expanded with the extensions that others have proposed.

  24. stevelaudig said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    finesse the problem: call them "United Statesian" not American.

  25. Ellen said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    Noetica, I think you are missing my point. I'm pretty sure David Beaver would not have chosen quotes where "the first American" is referring back to someone already mentioned and is functioning more or less like a pronoun. He did, after all, see the context before posting, and that would have really been off his point to choose a quote like that. So, safe to assume the the Burt Reynolds quote can not mean it in the "Native American" sense. Because there's more than one Native American.

    And there's the capitalization issue I alluded to. There's a difference between "first American" and "First American".

  26. Noetica said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 2:36 am


    About capitalisation:

    1. Note that David reports what he heard on public radio, so the uncapitalised version is his own transcription.

    2. I made no claim about the exact quotation David provided, but explicitly sought "just to fill out the story", and then explicitly considered a very plausible variant – a headline reading "First American dies of swine flu" – and what it might mean.

    3. In any case, capitalisation is variable for "first American" (alas!), even considered narrowly as meaning "Aboriginal American". Examples captured in the wild:

    From Nova at

    Were people in North America long before the so-called "first Americans"?

    Representing the Oneida Indian Nation:

    "The Oneida Indian Nation is honored to be included in the 82nd Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade," said Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation Representative and Chief Executive Officer. "American Indians welcomed the first Europeans who came to our homelands in the spirit of thanksgiving, and showed our new neighbors how to adapt to the challenges of our Mother Earth. As first Americans, we are most thankful to be included in this premier holiday event because it is a wonderful opportunity to once again share the true spirit of thanksgiving with America and the millions of people watching this wonderful parade."

    (I quote in context to show that the writer is not shy about capitalising in general, but still does not capitalise first, here.)

    From two Aboriginal American academic authors (one a professor), in print:

    And so were the so-called first Americans, the indigenes of this place.

    From Probing deeper into first American studies,
    , Dillehay et al. (2009):

    …diluted by the intrusion of later populations typed
    as first Americans.

    From Shades of Hiawatha, Alan Trachtenberg (2005):

    "The fundamental shift in representations of Indians, from "savage" foe to "first American" and ancestor to the nation,…"

    Another one, also in print, from 1980:

    He is not respected for his status as a special citizen, as a first American. Instead, he is a special problem requiring a bureaucracy and a staff of …

    Turning to my "missing your point", yes: it still eludes me. I still do not understand why, when First American is used in the sense of "Aboriginal American", it must be functioning "somewhat like a pronoun". Consider constructions like these:

    The First American I most admire, though, is Manoday himself.

    First Americans (yes, two of them) were elected to the board: both from the Cherokee Nation.

    Now, prudence and pragmatic considerations might move us to prefer different words. But otherwise those sentences are quite as viable as these:

    The American I most admire, though, is Manoday himself.

    Native Americans (yes, two of them) were elected to the board: both from the Cherokee Nation.

    (Remember that native American is itself ambiguous. For some it means "native-born [sic] American", in the sense in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is not, and so cannot be president. Example from Moby Dick available on request.)

    As for the Cherokee background of Burt Reynolds, of course it is far-fetched to suspect that it might be relevant! But a great deal is far-fetched in this domain. The link concerning Reynolds settles nothing, so far as I can see. And an overarching theme seems to be this: the reader or hearer will often uncover uncertainties in meaning that the speaker or writer completely fails to anticipate. I think I have drawn attention to some of those uncertainties – straying not too far from the topic, exploring its possibilities in an unexpected direction. (That's why we have blogs, no?)

    And last, I offer an interesting oddity from Mark Twain, with amplified ambiguity given the extra meaning I adduce for first American:

    My first American ancestor, gentlemen, was an Indian – an early Indian.

  27. Noetica said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 3:05 am

    …a very plausible variant – a headline reading "First American dies of swine flu"

    Which headline, as I should have said, furnishes the title of this thread (though it does not occur in David's initial text).

  28. Ellen said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    Noetica, perhaps you've forgotten that you made reference to the quote about Burt Reynolds. That's not his transcription.

  29. Sili said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    I assumed that this would be about the Obama just as Fredy Hill suggests.

    A similar conundrum is presented by the recurring headline "oldest woman has died". Doesn't she cease to be the oldest once she dies? So the oldest woman must at all time be alive.

  30. Noetica said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

    …perhaps you've forgotten that you made reference to the quote about Burt Reynolds.

    No Ellen, I have not forgotten that. I made reference to many things. I still don't understand your point. You said something about capitalisation, and I responded to that rather fully, I thought.

    That link concerning the naked Burt Reynolds ("a seminal and deeply probing examination", disturbingly enough) resolves little. I can see what Googlebooks will show; but even snippet preview is unavailable. One can construct a search such as this one, yielding just one hit in Googlebooks:

    The first American was Burt Reynolds, naked on a bearskin rug with a big cigar. Helen Gurley Brown was astonished to discover that centerfolds did not seem …

    This does not settle what is crucial, and in fact what is most relevant to the initial topic: "The first American what, or in what sense?"; or "The first American to do or be what?" We would need to see the preceding text to be sure about that; and being sure, or disambiguating, is a theme of the thread, isn't it?

    In this case, Burt Reynolds might have been:

    1. The first American male centrefold.

    2. The first American male nude centrefold.

    3. The first American centrefold in a particular magazine.

    4. The first American centrefold to be depicted smoking in the nude.

    5. One of several ethnic-stereotype centrefolds that have just been prefigured: no, not the Frenchman brandishing a brioche and wearing only a béret, but the first American, smoking quintessentially Ur-American tobacco, sprawled on a typical symbol of his hunting culture, the bearskin.

    And so on and on!

    In short, I am supporting David's very useful original statement:

    "The first X" is not so much ambiguous as completely and utterly underspecified as regards what the X in question is first at. A fine distinction you might say, but I think it's worth separating n=2 from n→∞.

    I'm just adding a few more intermediate and unexpected examples (which had understandably not occurred to David, I think), as we track from 2 to ∞.

    PS: Non-Googlebooks research shows that Reynolds on the rug was an early centrefold in Cosmopolitan (Vol. 172, No. 4, April 1972). He was the first American centrefold in the magazine. Cosmopolitan's were certainly among the first male nude centrefolds aimed at a heterosexual readership (or voyeuseship, perhaps).

  31. Ellen K. said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    Noetica, nothing you say there is relevant to the point I made.

    Here's a link back to my original comment.

  32. Noetica said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

    Ellen, forgive me. I have set forth a lot of detail, in which I have not sought merely to respond to you. Still, I thought I had squarely addressed your brief original comment, to the extent that I grasped the point of it. That comment in full:

    Noetica, while I'll buy the argument that for some folks "first American" or "a first American" can refer to a Native American (leaving the capitalization issue aside), "the first American" cannot. (Not unless it's referring back to a specific previously named individual and functioning somewhat like a pronoun.)

    If you will explain exactly why the first American cannot refer to a Native American without "functioning somewhat like a pronoun", I might say more. I had thought that a narrative could begin in either of these two ways:

    The Native American sat at the conference table between the African American from Detroit and the Hispanic delegate from Miami.

    The First American sat at the conference table between the African American from Detroit and the Hispanic delegate from Miami.

    As I have already suggested, such a use of the First American might often be avoided for pragmatic reasons, especially in spoken English where capitalisation is not available as a hint for disambiguation; but it is still viable, and in the example I have just presented it works without ambiguity – no more ambiguity, surely, than we find in the version with the Native American. And in fact we can ignore the question of capitalisation (whether in transcriptions of spoken English, or from a written source), which you set aside but which I have nevertheless already dealt with extensively.

    In many less articulated contexts, of course I agree: the first American is multiply ambiguous, which is the point of David's post.

RSS feed for comments on this post