The pragmatics of nyms, hyper- and hypo-

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When I saw this sign in a local state park yesterday, it reminded me of the recent discussions about "Pregnant people" and "People with erectile dysfunction".

In the background of the sociocultural issues about inclusive or exclusive language, there's a general problem about choosing terminological levels in taxonomic hierarchies. Having just spent a couple of hours swatting at mosquitoes and gnats, I wondered whether this sign's assertion that "It is unlawful to chase or disturb wild birds or animals" might put me at risk of legal penalties.

Obviously not, as a matter of common sense. But technically yes, at least as the sign is literally worded — according to Wikipedia [emphasis added]:

Animals (also called Metazoa) are multicellular, eukaryotic organisms in the biological kingdom Animalia. With few exceptions, animals consume organic material, breathe oxygen, are able to move, can reproduce sexually, and go through an ontogenetic stage in which their body consists of a hollow sphere of cells, the blastula, during embryonic development. Over 1.5 million living animal species have been described—of which around 1 million are insects—but it has been estimated there are over 7 million animal species in total. Animals range in length from 8.5 micrometres (0.00033 in) to 33.6 metres (110 ft). They have complex interactions with each other and their environments, forming intricate food webs. The scientific study of animals is known as zoology.

The complexity of such choices is increased when ordinary language differs from technical or scientific terminology — so in this case, animal is often used to mean something like "Any land-living vertebrate (i.e. not fishes, insects, etc.)" (Wiktionary's sense 3), or plain "mammal" (MW's sense 2.b).

And constraints of space or time, as on this sign, also play a role. Insects are obviously not a group that the sign intends to protect, but it's not so clear whether reptiles and amphibians should be included.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission regulations, at least as laid out in this document, are not much more helpful, though they use the term wildlife rather than wild birds or animals:

Safety Zones: It is unlawful to hunt for, shoot at, trap, take, chase or disturb wildlife within 150 yards of any occupied residence, camp, industrial or commercial building, farm house or farm building, or school or playground without the permission of the occupants.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission offers a list of "Wildlife in Pennsylvania", which covers mammals and birds, excluding insects, reptiles, and amphibians. That same page includes a link to a list of "Threatened and endangered species", all of which are birds or mammals — but the listing page also includes a link to a list of "Threatened and endangered reptiles, amphibians, and fish".

So I'm not worried about legal consequences for swatting mosquitoes and gnats in a Safety Zone — but it's common sense rather than literal interpretation that leads me to that conclusion.

More of the sign's visual context:


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 8:31 am

    Well, I have to ask — where do "nyms" come into this, and what is a "nym" ?

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 8:45 am


    [(myl) See also nym from pseudonym; but in this context, it's what hypernym and hyponym have in common…]

  3. Cervantes said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 8:48 am

    This is just a case of vernacular vs. scientific usage, as you correctly conclude. To avoid this problem, scientists commonly use the term "metazoan," which encompasses all the multicellular eukaryotes that aren't plants or fungi. I do think the term animal for most people will incorporate reptiles and amphibians, however; and I also think the park service wouldn't want you to harm them.

    [(myl) I'm not sure how they feel about rattlesnakes and copperheads and so on, but in any case, this regulation comes from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, who seem to regulate only the treatment wild birds and mammals.

    And similar issues also arise when all of the terminology involved is vernacular, as in the women/men/people case.]

  4. Simon K said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 9:14 am

    I think you're fine however "animals" are defined. Reading the line below "it is unlawful", it seems that all those behaviours are only forbidden if conducted "while hunting or trapping".

    If you swat a mosquito – or for that matter, shoot a moose – without specifically having set out to enrage in hunting or trapping, it seems like it's all good.

  5. Stephen Hart said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 9:21 am

    National Parks have strict permit requirements for collecting insects for research. State parks, Departments of Natural Resources, and the Forest Service all have different requirements for collecting permits.
    None of this is to say they intend to restrict mosquito swatting, of course.

  6. John Baker said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 9:35 am

    Note that the safety zone prohibitions only apply “while hunting or trapping.” So you were not guilty of any violations while swatting insects in the park, even based on the version of the prohibition described in the sign.

    But of course the actual legal prohibition is set out by statute, which neither the sign nor the summary of regulations reproduces. The statutory provision is set out in title 34, section 2505 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes and reads:

    “ Except as otherwise provided in this title or to any political subdivision, its employees or agents, which has a valid deer control permit issued under section 2902(c) (relating to general categories of permits), it is unlawful for any person, other than the lawful occupant, while hunting game or wildlife, taking furbearers of any kind, or pursuing any other privilege granted by this title, to hunt for, take, trap, pursue, disturb or otherwise chase any game or wildlife or to discharge, for any reason, any firearm, arrow or other deadly weapon within or through a safety zone, or to shoot at any game or wildlife while it is within the safety zone without the specific advance permission of the lawful occupant thereof.”

    The statutory term is “game or wildlife,” not “wild birds or animals.” The writer of the sign may have thought, rightly or wrongly, that “wild birds or animals” would be easier to understand. “Game” and “wildlife” are defined terms, and I will give those definitions in a separate post.

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    Simon K: Here in Trump country, hunters and trappers who specifically set out to enrage are not uncommon.

  8. John Baker said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 10:06 am

    Here are the statutory definitions of “game” and “wildlife,” together with their constituent definitions, from title 34, section 102 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes. The terms seem to extend only to mammals and birds.

    “Game.” Includes “game animals,” “game birds” and any facsimile thereof.
    “Game animals.” Unless otherwise modified by regulation of the commission, the term includes the elk, the whitetail deer, the
    bear, the cottontail rabbit, the snowshoe hare, the red, gray and fox squirrel and the groundhog or woodchuck.
    “Game birds.” Unless otherwise modified by regulation of the commission, the term includes geese, brant, wild ducks, mergansers and swans; coots, gallinules, rails, snipe, woodcock; turkeys, grouse, pheasants, Hungarian partridges, bobwhite quail and mourning doves.

    “Wildlife.” Wild birds, wild mammals and facsimiles thereof, regardless of classification, whether protected or unprotected, including any part, product, egg or offspring thereof, or the dead body or parts thereof (excluding fossils), whether or not included in a manufactured product or in a processed food product.
    “Wild animals.” All mammals other than domestic animals as defined in 1 Pa.C.S. § 1991 (relating to definitions). The term shall not include a species or variation of swine, pig or boar, held in captivity.
    “Wild birds.” All migratory birds as defined in 50 CFR by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior, game birds and any other birds designated by the commission, including, but not limited to, grouse, partridge, pheasant, quail and wild turkey.

  9. SS said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 10:06 am

    It appears that they are using the legally defined terms of wild animals and wild birds. Not that that makes it clearer to parkgoers. The Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code (34 Pa.C.S. 102) defines the terms as follows:

    "Wild animals." All mammals other than domestic animals as defined in 1 Pa.C.S. § 1991 (relating to definitions) [i.e. not an "equine animal, bovine animal, sheep, goat and pig"]. The term shall not include a species or variation of swine, pig or boar, held in captivity.

    "Wild birds." All migratory birds as defined in 50 CFR by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior, game birds and any other birds designated by the commission, including, but not limited to, grouse, partridge, pheasant, quail and wild turkey.

  10. Michael G said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 10:22 am

    I think the sign as written is quite applicable. If a wild possum attacked you, you could defend yourself. The same goes for gnats. Intuitively, that's not disturbing the animal, because it's in response to its action. Now, if you go hunting for gnats with a net or swatter when they haven't come for you, that would indeed be disallowed within this "safety zone".

  11. KevinM said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 11:19 am

    In my local park, which includes sports fields, there is a sign along the path warning pedestrians that "Objects may reach this area."

  12. Bloix said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 11:26 am

    A mosquito is an animal just as a tomato is a fruit.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 1:26 pm

    John B — « “Game.” Includes “game animals,” “game birds” and any facsimile thereof ». What (do you believe) the drafter(s) meant by "facsimile" ?

  14. John Baker said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 2:25 pm

    Philip Taylor: “facsimile” is a defined term and means “A copy of game or wildlife with similar characteristics. The term includes man-made, taxidermy mounts, mechanical or electronic facsimiles.”

    Of course, you would not hunt facsimiles of game or wildlife, but those defined terms are also used for other purposes.

  15. Dara Connolly said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 5:36 pm

    There used to be a sign at the entrance to the Luggala Estate in the Wicklow Mountains saying No dogs or bitches.

  16. Michael Watts said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 6:11 pm

    That explains why the sign distinguishes between "birds" and "animals". But I'd still like to know why "discharging any firearm or archery equipment" somehow doesn't include "shooting at any wild birds or animals". What's that second line forbidding? Slingshots?

    Wrt "-nym", I feel compelled to note (as does the linked wiktionary entry) that the root is onym, not nym.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 6:13 pm

    I think the sign as written is quite applicable. If a wild possum attacked you, you could defend yourself.

    The sign doesn't say that. Defending yourself from a possum is permissible if you are not hunting or trapping, and forbidden if you are.

  18. Idran said,

    August 28, 2021 @ 6:30 pm

    @Michael Watts: Sling and slingshot hunting are both still things in practice, if uncommon; usually for small game.

  19. chris said,

    August 29, 2021 @ 7:36 am

    Similarly, some veterinary medicine packages are prominently labeled "For Animal Use Only", which *technically* does not exclude using them on humans, but pragmatically is clearly intended to do so.

    Lately this has been especially relevant with ivermectin, an anti-parasite medication that some rumors claim is effective against COVID-19 in humans. (The medical community at large does not agree and does not recommend administering ivermectin to any human to prevent or treat COVID-19.)

    I wonder why the term "beast" has fallen out of use; even though it was never precisely defined, its approximate sense would be useful for situations where "animal" would include too much. "Mammal" could solve the park sign problem (although they might actually want to protect e.g. turtles and frogs too) but not the veterinary medicine one.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2021 @ 7:51 am

    Even without resort to the actual statutory definitions, doesn't the disjunctive "birds or animals" carry some implicature of a meaning of "animals" so narrow as to exclude birds? I think for a variety of reasons "mammals" is a somewhat more plausible candidate for such a restrictive meaning of "animals" than "mammals and reptiles and maybe amphibians."

    I note that in one animacy hierarchy of some ongoing cultural relevance, i.e. the religious practice of abstaining from eating "meat" on (certain) Fridays, "meat" covers both the flesh of mammals and that of birds but definitely excludes fish and usually when you ask excludes reptiles/amphibians as well. (E.g. every few years there's a news story during Lent about ecclesiastical authorities in Louisiana explaining that alligator flesh falls on the "fish" side of the fish/meat divide.)

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    To Michael Watts' point that the full morphologically productive suffix is -onym rather than -nym, I agree but am now puzzled as to why "onomastics" reflects (via various intermediaries) the Greek word ὄνομα, whereas "-onym" reflects instead (also via various intermediaries) the Greek word ὄνυμα, which the internet informs me is a Doric and Aeolic variant of ὄνομα. Both are allegedly cognate* with English "name," but why wouldn't post-Classical scientific usage have picked one and been consistent. We could have has "onymastics"!


  22. Hans Adler said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 5:12 am

    There is a scholarly field called legal logic, which deals with this kind of problem and is strongly related to linguistics. And I think if you take that into account, J.W. Brewer is right:

    In legal logic unlike in mathematical logic, when you connect two parts of speech by 'and' or 'or', this affects their interpretation. (I think natural language use is somewhere in between these two poles, but closer to legal logic than to mathematical logic.) In this case, while 'animals' could conceivably include fish and even insects in the occasional legal text, when paired with 'birds' this interpretation is no longer possible. The fact that the drafter felt the need to explicitly include makes it clear that they were assuming a restrictive definition of 'animal' that does not include them. Since the drafter's intent is clear from the text, it cannot be ignored in its interpretation.

  23. Andrew Usher said,

    September 2, 2021 @ 10:38 pm

    But in this case is it not correct to go to the actual text of the statutes, rather than that of the sign, which I assume has no authority on its own? And that (already quoted here by John Baker) does not have that ambiguity, although it's hard to say that the law is any better written than the sign …

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