Potty parity

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Last month the phrase potty parity appeared on the front page of the New York Times (13 April), in connection with laws designed to provide (roughly) equal treatment for women and men in the provision of toilets in public places (arenas, concert halls, and the like). The substantive issue is interesting in itself, and complex: merely supplying the same number of toilet stalls for women and men won't do for obvious reasons, so the question is how to balance things out, and doing that in a reasonable way will depend on the ratios of women and men in various venues. (There's a brief Wikipedia page.)

But I'm talking here in my linguist voice, and what attracted me about the story was the everyday poetry of potty parity.English writers and speakers love language play, in particular phonological play: rhymes and near-rhymes, alliteration, assonance, puns and near-puns, and so on. In some contexts (which I think of as "ludic locales") these effects are all over the place, sometimes serving as leavening of otherwise serious and sober topics, sometimes just calling attention to material by showing off.

In this case there's a second effect, of stylistic clash — between the kid-language variant potty for a socially delicate referent and the elevated parity, with the expression moving abruptly from the "lower" element to the "higher". So there's a joining of very close phonological fit with a disparity in stylistic level — producing an interesting tension in the expression.

The phonology is indeed very close: potty and parity are both alliterative and near-rhyming, with identical final syllables (what these are depends on your dialect of English), phonetically very similar stressed vowels (again, what these are depends on your dialect of English), plus the extra unstressed syllable (-ri in orthography) of parity matched with zero in potty. They're close to identical phonetically — but not stylistically.

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