Another polysemy quiz

« previous post | next post »

What is the link between (a) denigrating, (b) ceasing to hold in one's hand, (c) making written notes, and (d) euthanasia?

Language Log readers are so clever that these quizzes usually last less than ten minutes. I will leave comments open until someone solves the puzzle, and I will then comment.

Added later, after quickly vacuuming the rug (I thought I would have time, but I barely did): Yes, it's that the prepositional verb put down serves to express all of this unlikely clutch of concepts. The first correct answer arrived in just four minutes (see below; half a dozen were in before I switched off the vacuum cleaner and ran back to close off comments so this doesn't go on all night). Language Log readers really are incredibly smart. And on a Sunday, they just sit there pressing Reload This Page and hoping for something new to test their brains on.

Anyway, the point of this quiz (and I do have one) is not that I like word games; see the thoroughly accurate quote from me that Brett R offers below on that point. The point is (and I seem to recall saying this before) that I often wonder how and why human languages came to be so completely content with the wild and multifarious polysemy and ambiguity that afflicts them. The people who think clarity involves lack of ambiguity, so we have to strive to eliminate all multiple meanings and should never let a word develop a new sense… they simply don't get it about how language works, do they?

Languages love multiple meanings. They lust after them. They roll around in them like a dog in fresh grass.

What the hell is a language doing, you might say if you didn't know much, having the same word for criticizing, dropping, inscribing, and mercy-killing? It seems crazy. Well, it apparently works for the languages on this planet. That's the kind of place this is.

What's really crazy is the prescriptivism founded on baseless wittering about how bad it is to use a word with a meaning that some other word has or used to have and thus fall into the sin of not being clear and explicit. No user of a natural language is clear and explicit. If you truly think that's how they work, you need to be put down.


  1. Nick said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    Put down.

  2. michael farris said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    put down

  3. Faldone said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    Could have added initiating a baby's nap.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    And this is part of the polysemy of down, right?

  5. ella said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    arg, I got this one right away, but wasn't quick enough. To put down.

  6. Brett R said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

    "I couldn't give a monkey's fart about word puzzles. I couldn't…

    "The expressive power of human language is barely adequate to convey the profound level of apathy word puzzles provoke in me. I despise them. Actually Language Log is a bit too public a place for me to share the full visceral force of my reaction; ask me about them privately some time and I'll tell you how I really feel."
    -Geoff Pullum

    I guess these polysemy puzzles don't qualify as "word puzzles".

RSS feed for comments on this post