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.

A biography of my grandfather from a local business club

The Scotch Referendum

The American linguist Lauren Hall-Lew, currently living in Edinburgh, was musing on Twitter recently about how both Scotch and Oriental are considered offensive when categorizing people, but not offensive when describing alcohol or rugs. Her main point is valid and very important: as I’ve discussed before, emotions can run very high when discussing how to categorize people, this is because so much more is at stake.

A bunch of us derailed the discussion by questioning Hall-Lew’s assertion that scotch was offensive, and I want to continue that derail here. I had heard that assertion, but never from my father, whose own father came from Dundee in 1909 and whose mother was descended from “Scotch-Irish” immigrants from County Antrim.

Hall-Lew provided links to Wikipedia, the Grammarphobia Blog and the Urban Dictionary, which all reported that “many Scots” objected to using Scotch to categorize them, sometimes on the basis that “scotch is a type of liquor.”

The Wikipedia and Grammarphobia articles are particularly intriguing, because they tell us that the taboo declaration for Scotch describing people has been contested for its entire life, beginning with Robert Burns who said “The appellation of a Scotch Bard, is by far my highest pride; to continue to deserve it is my most exalted ambition.” While people in Scotland seem fairly united on declaring Scotch taboo to refer to people, people of Scottish/Scotch heritage living in North America have shown strong resistance to the taboo. Canadian politician Tommy Douglas referred self-deprecatingly to “my thick Scotch head.”

This controversy over Scotch reminds me of similar verbal hygiene practices among another group that I belong to, the transgender community. If you talk to certain people, as Jessica Roy of Open Source TV did, you can get the impression that we’re united in declaring transvestite and tranny taboo, and we love the word cis.

But just as with transvestite, nobody actually went around Scotland asking people if they agreed on this. There were simply some “community leaders” who decided that Scotch was bad, and convinced everyone who had any significant power in Scotland to go along with this. But they didn’t think to go talk to my grandfather, or Tommy Douglas, or any of the other people of Scottish heritage living outside Scotland.

Overvaluing the opinions of vocal “community leaders” can get you into trouble. For over a century “everyone knew” that if you were really from San Francisco you didn’t call it Frisco, you called it San Fran or SF or something. There was even a Don’t Call it Frisco Laundromat. But on New Year’s, Joe Eskenazi in the SF Weekly found that not only were younger residents embracing the name Frisco, but that it had long been popular among the city’s African American residents – it was primarily rejected by white people.

As I discussed in my post, you can’t have a vote of the transgender community because so many of us are in the closet or stealth. You could actually have a vote of the “Scottish community,” and in fact residents of Scotland will vote in September on whether Scotland should become an independent country again. There is some controversy over whether expatriates born in Scotland, including some 800,000 living in other parts of the United Kingdom, should be allowed to vote. They could even open up the vote to expatriates of Scottish ancestry like myself, but it doesn’t look like that will happen.

If you can have a vote on independence, you can at least have an opinion poll, based on a decent sample, on issues like the usage of Scotch. This might not have been feasible a hundred years ago, but it is certainly doable in this day and age for linguistic researchers to partner with opinion pollsters on questions of the acceptability of certain terms.

Over email, Hall-Lew clarified that by saying that Scotch “is offensive,” she didn’t mean to signal that she was accepting the word of “the community” on verbal hygiene issues. She was simply pointing to the existence of ideologies that mark Scotch and Oriental as offensive with regard to people. This kind of nuance is difficult to convey on Twitter, which is why I followed up with tweets and emails.

I actually believe that it’s very difficult, even among well-informed linguists, to say that something “is offensive” without implying that it’s a universally held opinion in the community. In public, it’s well-nigh impossible; someone will always assume that the group is united on this issue.

I’ve observed, particularly on Tumblr, that this is in fact how some of these ideas are transmitted: someone will declare that transgendered is offensive, and unless that is challenged it will be taken by others as a statement of community consensus. Even if, as with Frisco, the consensus leaves out the city’s black population.

For linguists (and grammarians and encyclopedia editors), especially those who try to be impartial observers, there is an observer’s paradox here. Just by stating that something “is offensive,” we can reinforce that ideology. We should be aware of this, and take care with our words. At the very least we should say “is considered offensive by some.” We can take steps to identify the most vocal opinion-makers. And if we’re really interested, we can verify the extent to which the population in question really agrees with a particular opinion or not.

The case of “Frisco” shows clearly that this is not a pedantic matter of crossing “i”s and dotting “t”s. It’s a matter of basic fairness. If people hear that “San Franciscans” don’t like Frisco, it excludes black San Franciscans and implies that they don’t matter. If they hear that people don’t like Scotch, they get a message that people in the Scottish diaspora don’t matter. That’s not right.

How to get to the bottom of category fights

Even if you didn’t grow up in a hippie town like I did, you may very well like to eat natural foods. If I weren’t allergic I would eat natural chicken; everyone says it’s healthy, right?

Not so fast! According to an Associated Press report from 2010, The Truthful Labeling Coalition says that chicken labeled “natural” isn’t always natural. What does that mean? It turns out that some “natural” chicken is a free rider, exploiting the ambiguity that comes from the polysemous term “natural,” and the Truthful Labeling Coalition is attempting to play the role of gatekeeper, excluding this “plumped” chicken from the “natural” category. When we look deeper, we find that the Truthful Labeling Coalition is composed of companies like Foster Farms that claim to produce “100% natural” chicken. There are consumers who could be buying Foster Farms chicken, but are instead buying plumped chicken from companies like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, depriving Foster of revenue. Beneath the fight over words is a fight over money.

This example is a good introduction to how category fights work. Not all members of the category are equal. A gatekeeper accuses another category member of free riding and tries to exclude them. Beneath the terminological dispute there is always an underlying dispute over resources. The gatekeeper benefits from membership in the category and is attempting to deny these benefits to the accused free riders.

Just because this is about resources doesn’t mean that it’s not a valid argument. Fairness, after all, is about access to resources. What it means is that the fight is not “just semantics.” It can be semantics in the service of justice.

Let’s define some terms. Homonymy is when two words are pronounced or written the same, like “bear” and “bare.” Polysemy is a special kind of homonymy where a word develops multiple senses, like “since” meaning “subsequent to” or “because of.” Some polysemous words can even split to the point where they’re pronounced differently by most people, like “not” and “naught.”

Ambiguity is when there is more than one interpretation for a particular utterance. Homonyms can be ambiguous, like the famous “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear,” but polysemous words even more so – and in fact that’s how words change their meaning, according to Elizabeth Traugott.

In our example, “natural” has become polysemous. In terms of food, I (and lots of other people) associate it with the absence of industrial methods and additives. As shopper Muembo Muanza told Juliana Barbassa of the Associated Press, “If it says natural, I expect it to be all natural – nothing but chicken.” But Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson claim that it’s still “natural” as long as what gets added – typically salt, water and the seaweed product carageenan – are “natural.” The word “natural” is ambiguous between those two senses.
natural chicken1
In this diagram, the smaller, darker circle is the “natural” of Foster Farms, Perdue and Muanza, while the bigger circle indicates the “natural” of Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride.

It’s an open question whether the executives at Tyson actually believes that their chicken is natural. If they don’t and are being dishonest, it’s a bait-and-switch tactic. If they do believe, it’s a free rider problem – at least from the point of view of the Truthful Labeling Coalition. Regardless, Foster Farms believes that it is unfairly losing revenue because its chickens are in the same category with the “plumped” chickens. The Truthful Labelers want to exclude “plumped” chicken from the category of “natural,” and the other companies want to deny that exclusion.

You can see now how I used the Power of Semantics to get beyond a category fight to the underlying resource conflict. I first identified the category and the players, and the ambiguity at play. Then I reported the players’ stances towards the category and what they wanted.

Who should win this fight? Well, the Truthful Labeling Coalition is hoping that your category of “natural chicken” is closer to theirs; if it is, you probably want to exclude the “plumped” meat from your diet and will support their efforts.

In a Wittgensteinian sort of way

This weekend the New York Times Styles section ran one of their periodic stories about kids growing up and moving to the suburbs, and changing both themselves and the suburbs in the process. A while back the suburb in question (more of an exurb) was Rosendale, and this time it was Hastings-on-Hudson. This particular article was notable for its sheer number of evocations of the wacky hipster frame, and specifically the description by “futurism consultant” (sorry, I have to put that in quotes) Ari Wallach that Hastings is a village “in a Wittgensteinian sort of way.”

Blogger Kieran Healy responded by posting the “Top Ten Ways that Hastings-on-Hudson might be a Village in a Wittgensteinian Sense.” And of course he’s right that it is a very funny quote, name-dropping a philosopher that hardly anybody has read in the original, in a “Styles” article about real estate trends. I would crack up if I ever found myself saying something like that, and I hope Wallach has enough of a sense of humor to do the same.

What’s funnier to me, as I just realized yesterday morning, is that I have an idea what Wallach was saying, and I agree with him. In fact, on Sunday I was at the Lavender Languages Conference arguing that I am transgender in a Wittgensteinian sort of way. I didn’t use those words; instead I referenced George Lakoff, who got the idea from Wittgenstein via Eleanor Rosch.

I learned about Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophy of Language class 22 years ago, but that class was so rich with theories that I couldn’t keep track of them all. So now I’m catching up with the help of Wikipedia, which gives us this quote (Philosophical Investigations 66, 1953) about the idea of “family relationships”:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’. I mean board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don’t say, “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'”–but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

I made the Euler diagram above (which is not a true Venn diagram, according to the Wikipedian who made this page) to illustrate Wittgenstein’s use of “game.” Some of the games that he mentions, like Olympic track and field games, are amusing (in the sense of not being boring) and involve competition among players, skill and chance.

Other games fit only some of these criteria. There is no element of luck in chess or tic-tac-toe. There is no competition among players in solitaire or throwing a ball at the wall. There is no skill involved in ring-around-the-rosie. Tic-tac-toe is not “amusing.” Nevertheless, we call these all “games,” and if we tried to say that any of the four were necessary criteria we would exclude some of the games.

Similarly, these cannot be sufficient criteria either. Surgery involves skill, but it is not a game. Weather forecasting involves chance. War involves competition. Theater is amusing. That said, they are often compared to games, and described with game metaphors.

This is a good place to stop. I’ll talk in another blog post about how Hastings might be a village in this way.