Text orientation ambiguity

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Perhaps Victor can point us to an analogous ambiguity in Chinese poetico-political history:

The source is this tweet. (or this X?).

Although I don't think I've seen it before, this pattern should be pretty common:




  1. Chris Buckey said,

    August 12, 2023 @ 2:57 pm

    I wonder if this is like how diagonal billing works in movie credits and you're supposed to pick whichever reading you want.

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 12, 2023 @ 3:06 pm

    Well, someone could ask the owner of the vehicle depicted — the number plate is clearly visible in at least one other instance of the image …

  3. charles antaki said,

    August 12, 2023 @ 3:13 pm

    I guess the writer's appreciation of kerning, which had deserted them up until that moment, came back to save them with "2024" – just appreciably closer to Trump to preserve that connection.

  4. Michael P said,

    August 12, 2023 @ 3:21 pm

    An earlier, probably coincidental, example of the same ambiguous layout spawned the
    don't dead open inside
    meme. US low-brow television isn't exactly Chinese poetry, though.

  5. Jason said,

    August 12, 2023 @ 8:29 pm

    I like the interpretation that the writer realised it was ambiguous, but knew the American flag and pickup truck would render the intended meaning clear as day. An example of ASL style spatial grammar with the pickup truck as disambiguating signifier.

  6. John Swindle said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 1:39 am

    @Jason, wonderful!

    Meanwhile "FUCK" is in a different color and "BIDEN" is the least weathered. Let me suggest that it originally said "TRUMP 2024." Someone added "FUCK." The original genius then replied with "BIDEN." Et voilà. Textual diarization.

  7. maidhc said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 1:57 am

    An older example of political ambiguity via kerning is a poster from the American Civil War era. A black slave is cheering and underneath is written either DISUNION FOREVER or DIS UNION FOREVER, depending on how you interpret the ambiguously sized space between letters.

    I'm not sure about the history of this poster. It turns up in popular histories quite often, but I wonder how common it was in real life.

  8. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 4:24 am

    "the American flag and pickup truck would render the intended meaning clear as day" — As a mere Briton, I cannot see how they can in any way disambiguate the meaning. Do Trump supporters drive pickup trucks and Biden supporters not, or vice versa ? DoTrump supporters display the American flag and Biden supporters not, or vice versa ? These are genuine questions from one who has no feel for the nuances of American politics.

  9. Doug said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 5:50 am

    The stereotypes are that Trump supporters are much more likely to drive pickup trucks, and more more likely to display the flag, and especially likely to combine the two.

    Also note the Nebraska license plate. Trump won Nebraska by a wide margin.

  10. Doug said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 5:58 am

    Note that this sort of thing is not unique to the USA. Consider this thread involving a picture of a white van and the flag of England:


  11. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 7:02 am

    "The stereotypes are that Trump supporters are much more likely to drive pickup trucks, and more more likely to display the flag, and especially likely to combine the two."

    Add a cross and we would have the hat trick. In related news, it is widely understood that it is best to avoid any business that displays a flag or, especially, a cross. This is not necessarily out of any animosity to patriotism or Christianity, but out of the assumption that any business using patriotism and/or Christianity for marketing is likely to produce shoddy work or outright fraud.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 7:27 am

    I think broadly speaking pickup trucks are more common in parts of the country where Trump won a local majority (largely because of the strong current partisan skew of rural v. urban locales), but I doubt that the local Biden voters in those regions (whether they be 45% of the populace or 25%) are significantly less likely to drive them than their Trump-voting neighbors. Similarly, I doubt that within Nebraska there is a sudden/dramatic decline in pickup trucks on the road the moment you enter the handful of counties that Biden carried — I know from personal observation that pickup trucks remain common in Davidson County (=Nashville), Tennessee, where 64% of the vote went for Biden. Probably not quite so common as in more rural Tennessee, but much more so than in Manhattan or San Francisco.

    The "drives pickup truck, so musta voted for Trump" way of thinking is a good example of the tendency to essentialize statistical differences in a way that myl has long inveighed against.

    FWIW I think John Swindle's theory as to how the current "message" accumulated in stages is a plausible one.

  13. Rob said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 8:02 am

    haha, I misread the "2024" as "ZOZY" – thinking it was some kind of American derogatory term. But then I'm a sort of Brit.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 8:03 am

    Let me also suggest that, at least if this was a slightly more formally-prepared text (like a billboard or advertisement where someone with graphic design training had been involved …), I think there would be a fairly strong presumption that from an "order of operations" point of view the "read left to right" norm precedes the "read top to bottom" norm, so that you would visually parse the 2×2 grid as two rows, with the top one preceding the bottom one, rather than two columns, with the left one preceding the right one. I wouldn't call that an exceptionless presumption, but still a stronger one than e.g. the approximate 60/40 likelihood that a randomly-chosen Nebraska resident voted for Trump rather than Biden.

  15. Mark P said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 9:05 am

    I live in Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s district in NW Georgia, so as red as a Hot Pepper Red Chevrolet pickup truck. My observation is that pickup trucks that prominently display an American flag are invariably owned or driven by Trump suppoters, or worse if they display large actual American and confederate flags. I have noticed a correlation between Trump support and the willingness to display vulgar language on their trucks. I have also noticed that many of the people who display American flags and vulgarities supporting Trump have a weak grasp of orthography.

  16. Cervantes said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 9:59 am

    Perhaps you have watched The With Situation Wolf Room Blitzer on CNN.

  17. Thomas Shaw said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 11:05 am

    As far as political intution goes, I'd add that it is much more common to see a vulgar pro-trump message in public here than a pro-biden one in general, whether or not it's on a flag-bearing truck. Part of that likely has to do with the fact that their guy is out of power, but pro-trump sentiment has long been more aggressive and combative than pro-biden sentiment.

  18. Lance said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 1:40 pm

    I leave it as an exercise to undergraduate students of semantics and pragmatics to untangle, following the various assumptions about what people drive and who they voted for:

    1. A person sees a "Biden/Harris 2024" bumper sticker on a pickup truck in…
    1a. …Massachusetts, and thinks, "Even the people who drive trucks here are Democrats."
    1b. …Nebraska, and thinks, "Even the Democrats here drive trucks."

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 13, 2023 @ 8:21 pm

    It may well be the case that "pro-Biden" sentiment stricto sensu is on average less emotionally intense than pro-Trump sentiment, but *anti-Trump* sentiment in my experience can often have the same level of emotional intensity, with various associated phenomena such as weakened norms against using vulgar language, as pro-Trump sentiment. Insofar as Biden is due to historical fortuity the leading current nominal figurehead/placeholder (qua presidential candidate) of anti-Trumpness, I think that may be a better way of framing the analysis of the message.

    But maybe this gets us back to the question of how we interpret 2 x 2 grids of the general form posited by myl w/o such further contextual cues. Imagine a cropped version of the picture such that you could not tell what sort of vehicle's back window it was, could not see the flag or the state-disclosing license plate, etc. What parse would seem most likely from what remains?

    Two loosely-related anecdotes:

    1. Back during the 2016 primary season I was in California and saw a Prius with a pro-Trump bumpersticker, which struck me as sufficiently incongruous as to remark upon. It was, however, pointed out to me that at the time California was a jurisdiction in which driving a Prius let you utilize the HOV lane during rush hour without the need to have another passenger or two with you. This feature of the local incentive structure meant that stereotypes about who would buy/own a Prius (e.g. people wishing to make a performative display of their environmentalist bona fides) were not as reliable as they might otherwise be (not that they would have been perfectly reliable anyway).

    2. A year or two before that I happened to be driving behind THE car which at the time bore the vanity plate (for New York state) 4OBAMA. It was an older Toyota Camry or something like that, and frankly kind of beat-up looking and in obvious need of a trip to the car wash. It seemed a suboptimal advertisement for the prosperity-producing accomplishments of the then-incumbent. My takeaway from this was that (on the assumption the holder of such a vanity plate wishes to actually improve public perception of the politician in question rather than just indulge their own ego, which might be a false assumption) this was a genuinely difficult problem. You would want to have that license plate on a car that was not too expensive but also not too cheap, in any case well-maintained and cared for, not a make/model stereotypically associated with any particular demographic group that could be the object of pejorative/reductionist scorn, etc etc.

  20. Cervantes said,

    August 14, 2023 @ 8:59 am

    Maybe the guy played football for the University of Alabama and wore the number 40.

  21. chris said,

    August 14, 2023 @ 10:34 am

    like a billboard or advertisement where someone with graphic design training had been involved
    Surely a professional would have put *two* words in red, or used two different background colors, to unambiguously convey the intended grouping. Well, a competent professional, anyway.

    A point in favor of John Swindle's hypothesis: "Biden" is the only part to clearly be written in mixed case.

  22. D.O. said,

    August 14, 2023 @ 9:37 pm

    As a theoretical exercise in the variability of readings one has to consider a possibility of "fuck Trump-Biden 2024" for a voter who really doesn't want a rematch. I can sympathize with the sentiment if not with the precise wording

  23. V said,

    August 16, 2023 @ 1:57 pm

    Rob: "haha, I misread the "2024" as "ZOZY" – thinking it was some kind of American derogatory term. But then I'm a sort of Brit."

    Until I read your comment I also assumed "ZOZY" is some kind of racist slur. Now I see it.

  24. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 3:27 am

    Why might "zozy" be a racist slur ? Being called "dozy" impugns one's intellect, "a floozy" one's sex, "boozy" one's affection for alcohol and so on, so why would a leading "z" lead anyone to believe that race was involved ?

  25. V said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 5:52 am

    I looked to me like the Zs on Russian tanks and APCs.

  26. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 6:48 am

    Oh, good Lord, that sort of racism. I am so used to racism being used in the context of colour that I did not consider for one second the possibility that it might be used in the context of (e.g.,) Ukraine v. Russia. But which of the two (Biden, Trump) do the general (American) public think of as more likely to espouse Russian values ?

  27. V said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 8:44 am

    Are you trying to be sarcastic? I just said what my first impression was.

  28. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 8:50 am

    No, V, I am neither being sarcastic nor am I trying to be sarcastic. What led you to believe otherwise ?

  29. V said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 9:50 am

    It is hard to gauge the tone when communicating in purely text-based communication.

  30. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 1:48 pm

    Then perhaps it would be safer to err on the side of ingenuousness and assume that one's fellow commentators are as well motivated and sincere in their comments as one is oneself, unless there is very clear evidence to the contrary.

  31. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 5:30 pm

    Note that several of the varying definitions of "zozy" and "zozi" at the take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt urban dictionary use "zozi" for things related conceptually to calendar year 2021. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Zozy Although since "SURNAME YEAR" is such a common pattern in references to American political candidates, I did not misread the "2024" and was initially quite puzzled by the "ZOZY" misreading.

    Since UK parliamentary elections happen at somewhat irregular and unpredictable intervals and sometimes on short notice, it would make sense that "SURNAME YEAR" would not be as common or expected a usage in connection with political candidates there.

  32. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 18, 2023 @ 5:22 am

    Well, speaking a Briton, I had never encountered the word *ZOZY before this thread, so when I read the graffiti I read it as intended : "2024". Now that others have suggested "zozy", I can see how one could read it as such, but even despite the lack of native familiarity with the SURNAME YEAR convention, that was nonetheless how I read it.

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