Not a real screwdriver? Frames and ambiguity

Charles Fillmore died in February. I only met the man once, briefly, but his work has been a great inspiration to me over the years, particularly frame semantics. Last week I came across this sign above, advertising a bar.

The word “screwdriver” is ambiguous, because it can mean a hand tool to turn screws, or a drink made with vodka and orange juice. Fillmore’s frames help us to explore and understand that ambiguity. In practice we rarely encounter that ambiguity, because they appear in different frames. We would use the tool sense of “screwdriver” in an equipment repair frame, but the drink sense in a cocktail party frame.

If we are talking about something that is happening in the present, there are visual cues to set up the frame. In this case, the picture of a drink and the design cues of a bar facade set up the “bar” frame, and we would be surprised to find hand tools for sale inside. The linguistic cues of other drink names also evoke the bar frame.

Often, when we are speaking about things that are not in the here and now, we evoke the frame with particular words, for example, “I had to open up the back of the stove, so I opened my tool bag and rummaged around for a screwdriver.”

It is possible for frames to overlap, for example if a table leg needs to be tightened at a cocktail party. Someone may say, “can you get me a screwdriver?” and another person may bring them the wrong kind. The comedic possibilities are endless but in reality, with “screwdriver” the frames overlap so rarely that there is hardly ever a chance of confusion.

One thing I’ve been fascinated with lately are category fights – where someone tries to eliminate or suppress a particular kind of ambiguity. For example, Erin La Rosa argued that the new Waffle Taco is “not a f*cking taco.” The use of the word bothered her in a way that doesn’t seem to happen with the alcoholic screwdriver. I believe that this is because people don’t fear the possibility of a bait-and-switch with the screwdriver. The frames are so far apart that nobody worries about a frustrated carpenter getting sold the wrong screwdriver.

Another naming conflict is when a person argues against the extension of a term out of fear that the new referent will besmirch the respectability of the category. Or if the expansion appears to be a done deal, they may argue for the abandonment of that term. In the case of “screwdriver,” nobody seems to worry about the cocktail sullying the tool’s reputation, even though a screwdriver isn’t as classy as a martini, or scotch on the rocks.

To make a case that one sense of a word threatens another, either through bait-and-switch or free riding or besmirching, it appears that it is not enough to have a negative consequence to any potential confusion. There also has to be a reasonable likelihood that confusion will in fact occur. That in turn seems to require a minimum overlap between the frames. And that in turn is one of Fillmore’s contributions to our understanding of category fights.

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