Words and things

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The latest Subnormality includes this panel:

Of course, it turns out that the Water Department can't help her either… The Sphynx is apparently channeling Steven Wright ("I went to a general store, but they wouldn't let me buy anything specifically"), or similar traditional jokes ("Why do you park in a driveway but drive in a parkway?"). Another panel:

Read the whole thing.


  1. MattF said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    Ms. Sphinx just goes around asking a lot of unanswerable questions…

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Words and things [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    […] Language Log » Words and things languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2842 – view page – cached December 14, 2010 @ 8:42 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Linguistics in the comics […]

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    I'm sure she would have problems with these signs, all within a few blocks of each other near my office: customer parking, valet parking, restaurant parking, 10 minute parking, employee parking, football parking, self parking, reserved parking, physician parking, to go parking, no parking. Just exactly who or what is parking or being parked?

  4. Rebecca said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    It reminds me of the fire department in Fahrenheit 451. Which I've often thought couldn't be written today, because the gender-neutral "firefighter" doesn't have the ambiguity of "fireman."

  5. TNV said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    There is a similar Russian pun involving the word 'pozhar' meaning 'house fire' and 'pozharnaya' meaning the fire department, while 'pozharit" the verb, actually means 'to fry [food]' (all derived from 'zhar' meaning heat) so the character calls up the fire department asking to have some meat fried up.

  6. SS said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    Hmm, does this mean you can go to the Department of Veterans' Affairs if you want to have an affair with a veteran?

  7. richard howland-bolton said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

    Mr Fnortner I believe that 'parking' is when two teenagers who like each other quite a lot find a secluded spot and…

  8. Dan T. said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    If olive oil is made from olives, what is baby oil made from?

    Why does the mailman deliver mail and the garbageman take away garbage, instead of the other way around?

    Similarly, if you look up "pets" and "pests" in their nearby listings in the Yellow Pages, you're probably looking to acquire the former but get rid of the latter.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

    When I drive past a sign for a yard sale and someone else is in the car, I often remark that I don't need to buy a yard, but I could use some meters.

    This may be why I don't have any friends any more.

  10. Dan T. said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    You could go to a garage sale and buy a garage, or shop at a flea market for some fleas.

  11. rpsms said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    And whenever I see a street sign which says "SLOW" I am quite offended. And "DIP?" How did they know I was coming?!

  12. Xmun said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    rpsms: Get rid of your American punctuation habits. There's no road sign saying "DIP?".

  13. Acilius said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    @Rebecca: Well, a "firefighter" fights fire, while a "firefight" is one in which the combatants fight each other by means of fire. So there is still an ambiguity, but I agree that the word would present a problem to anyone trying to update the language of Fahrenheit 451. "Firefighter" is too dynamic a word for Montag and his fellows. It's hard to imagine them putting up much of a fight.

  14. JMM said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    My niece refused to go to a church dinner honoring a famous humanitarian because she had learned what a vegetarian was the week before.

    [hey, I didn't start this.]

  15. Mark P said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    @Jerry Friedman – it was probably pretty funny the first time your passenger heard it, but it suffers on the 100th telling. I have that problem all the time, but once I reached a certain age, I decided I didn't care. I get more like my father and his jokes get funnier the longer I live.

  16. rpsms said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 4:03 pm


    I don't think that is something you assert with 100% accuracy, but in any event, I can think of a few other signs I have seen that might work for you.

  17. richard howland-bolton said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 4:10 pm


  18. Ellen K. said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    You all are missing Xmun's point. What Xmun is saying is that there are no road signs the word "DIP" followed by a question mark; thus, the question mark should have gone outside the quotation marks. Frankly, I agree. Not that I would have posted on the matter. Frankly, I didn't notice. But I do get Xmun's point.

  19. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    Xmun is incorrect, though, that American punctuation would require putting the question mark inside the quotation marks, whether or not it's part of the quotation. That applies only to periods and commas. For question marks and exclamation points, U.S. practice is the same as in the U.K.

  20. Dan T. said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    Some neighborhoods have signs that say "SLOW CHILDREN", which seems insulting to the intelligence of the young people in the area.

  21. peterm said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 5:03 pm


  22. peterm said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    Many urban roads in Lesotho have dips to prevent vehicles speeding, and these are signposted with the SeSotho for slow, "butle" (pronounced "boot-lay"). As a result, the dips are known to as butles.

  23. gcruse said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

    That's Kathy Gryphon.

  24. Dan T. said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    I thought "butle" was what a butler does.

  25. Anthea Fleming said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    If tin whistles are made of tin, what are foghorns made of?

  26. Mr. Fnortner said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    If we're doing bad standup, answer me this: If a football players get athletes' foot, do astronauts get mistletoe?

  27. the other Mark P said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    Catholic Priests might get mistletoe.

    A rocket is a "miss-aisle".

    (I know missile = missal is a very US pronunciation, but it irks. Do US scientists rhyme fissile with whistle too? Or is only missile treated this way?)

  28. Jonathan D said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

    Whoever said you don't park in a parkway clearly wasn't British.

  29. Ethan said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 11:00 pm

    @some Mark P: (missile=missal) Is only missile treated this way?

    Nope. Also sessile, scissile, and tensile, which doesn't rhyme with tinsel where I am sitting but probably does a ways southeast of here.

  30. David Green said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 11:00 pm

    For many years, the San Francisco Water Department in downtown SF (designed rather like an old fashioned bank, with a U-shaped central area surrounded by windows for transactions) featured prominently in its center a drinking fountain. Perhaps it's still there — haven't been by in years.

  31. J. Goard said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

    @some Mark P., Ethan:

    Yep, and where I can easily use either pronunciation (basically, the most low-frequency sciencey words), it's the reduced one that sounds more prestige.

  32. Lazar said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 11:59 pm

    J. Goard: As an American I use the reduced pronunciation for most words of that class (e.g. fragile, hostile, etc) most of the time, but to me, the reduced version sounds more demotic and the unreduced one more posh.

  33. maidhc said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 5:12 am

    It's a bit like my theory of how to live in the USA. Every item that you want is sold somewhere that purports to be an entirely different type of emporium.

    If you want to buy a watch or a pair of shoes, you go to a sporting goods store. If you try to buy shoes at a shoe store, you will pay 5 times what they charge at a sporting goods store for the same shoes. If you want to buy a table, you go to an office supply store. Trying to buy a table at a furniture store would involve negotiating a bank loan.

    Just a few weeks ago I made another such discovery. Ever since our convenient local department store went bankrupt, I have been unable to find anywhere that sells jeans that are not blue. Brown or green jeans seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth.

    Until somebody finally clued me in. Such garments are available at my local hardware store. I went over there and picked up 3 pairs–with a rebate!

    As far as I can tell, Americans so used to it they don't even notice. You just grow up with the knowledge that the best place to get camping equipment is at a florist shop and if you need new curtains you should head down to the fish market.

    I have a second theory, which deals with how to live in Canada. The theory is quite succinct: it doesn't matter what kind of product you want, they have it at Canadian Tire.

  34. GeorgeW said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 6:42 am

    @Ethan, J Goard, Lazar:

    In the South, we have a tendency to stress the first syllable of two-syllable nouns like POLice, HOtel, etc. and the 2nd syllable becomes a schwa. So 'missile' would rhyme with 'missal.'

    But, unlike the Brits, we still put our car in the garAGE, not the GARage.

    [(myl) Throughout the U.S., I think, the preferred pronunciation of missile rhymes with "whistle". Interesting that someone finds that "it irks". Some social psychologist really needs to figure out how certain variant pronunciations get emotional loadings, while others don't. I've offered a hypothesis, but I have no evidence beyond its plausibility.]

  35. Terry Collmann said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 7:19 am

    "G'raage" was once the upper-middle class British pronunciation of garage, as demonstrated in John Betjeman's Indoor Games Near Newbury: "Come up Hupmobile, Delage … each from out your warm garage."

  36. richard howland-bolton said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    @maidhc and to live in Britain you have to get used to some odd shop names.
    Last time I was in London I noticed shoe shops with names like 'Office' and 'Address' and one called 'Author' that seemed to be next to a book store called 'Koenig Boots' till I looked again and saw it was, sadly, really a 'k'.

  37. Adrian said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 9:12 am

    maidhc nicely channelling George Mikes there

  38. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    Our city government has a Hunger Commission, and I've been known to observe that if they'd only stop committing hunger, people would be much better off.

  39. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    Rebecca: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events plays with the idea of a fire department in the same way (and without using the word 'fireman'). I won't be more precise for fear of spoilers.

  40. Ken Brown said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    @myl: "… that someone finds that "it irks". Some social psychologist really needs to igure out how certain variant pronunciations get emotional loadings, while others don't…"

    My pet theory, which is all my own, and based on nothing but my own irritation at the way some Welsh people say "tooth", is that its pronounciations that don't fit into your model of how other people talk. ("Tooth" because for me that has the same vowel as "goose" but for at least some people it has the vowel they use for "soot" or "put" which for some reason irritates me, embarrassing as it is to admit it.)

    I'm from the south-east corner of England. I speak with a pretty standard south-eastern urban accent (might be called "Estuary English" by some). I meet people from the north of England, or Ireland, or Scotland, or Wales, more or less every day, as well as non-native English speakers from all over the world. I hear various American accents and RP on the radio or TV. I have no trouble understanding what most of them say presumably because I do a sort of vowel shift in my head. I know that then they say one vowel, they pretty consistently mean what I would mean by another – I (presumably) have a sort of model or mapping of their accent on to mine. Most of the time I never notice I'm doing it.

    If some vowels don't fit into that mapping – perhaps if they are in a different lexical set from mine – I also don't notice it if its consistent. So the short-A long-A distinctions, or the cot-caught merger, or rhotic vs non-rhotic US or Scots accents, are all pretty invisible to me in real conversation. I expect them. But an unexpected shift that doesn't fit my internalised models, stands out. Its noticeable. Why, I wonder, does he say that one word in that strange way?

    A pointless thing to get irritated by, but there it is.

  41. Mark F. said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    Mark P. – Yes, a lot of us do rhyme fissile with missal. See http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fissile. I suspect scientists who use the word a lot are more likely to do so than lay people because they hear it enough to know that's how "everyone" pronounces it.

    I think I distinguish tinsel from tensile by the first syllable, but I know I have at least a partial pin-pen merger, so I'm not confident of that. I suspect I do it inconsistently.

  42. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 3:36 am

    Loved it. Made my day :-)

  43. Holiday season joke threads « Panther Red said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    […] Language Log, a post looks at a comic strip in which a character can't understand why the Fire Department […]

  44. Acilius said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    @maidhc: Brilliant observation. Some Americans do still think this is an odd state of affairs; not long ago, my father mentioned to me that he had bought some flowers for my mother. He had to look for them at the lumberyard, since the candy store didn't have any left. He shook his head at the weirdness.

  45. Bloix said,

    December 18, 2010 @ 11:20 pm

    Steam locomotives had two operators: the engineer, who manned the throttle and the break and watched the rails and the signals; and the fireman, who stoked the engine and monitored the boiler and the and the pressure gauges.

  46. Keith said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    My wife, who is French, often comments on the difference between the way the English language and the French language treat the words and constructions differently.

    French will often construct an adjective in the form of a past participle of a verb using a prefix of é- or dé- to indicate removal. For example, "olives dénoyautées" are olives from which the pit (the "noyau") has been removed.

    The equivalent English construction uses the adjective in the form of the past participle without a prefix to denote removal, hence pitted olives.

    From which she infers that iced water has no ice left in it and sliced bread has no more slices.

    Or she takes the opposite approach states that since a wrapped present has had wrapping added to it, then a peeled apple must have had peel added to it.

    My explanation to her, is that she should imagine the basic object (an olive, an apple, a present, some water) in its most natural state.

    When describing the modified object (a pitted olive, a peeled apple, a wrapped present, some iced water) English simply adds an adjective without using any prefix because it is assumed that the object is undergoing the most common modification and that the reader or listener will be able to infer the correct sense.

    I was trying to imagine the term for these prefixes that denote removal… ablational?


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