January 13, 2004

Incall and outcall

I want to confess something. It's kind of embarrassing. It involves hotels and making phone calls and getting naked... But it's time I was open about this. I'll share it with you. Though I would understand if those who have narrow views concerning the personal services industry might prefer not to read anything on this subject.

It is remarkably stressful to fly thousands of miles to a strange city, ride in a strange taxi from a strange airport to a strange hotel, and sit tensely for hours on strange hotel chairs at conferences listening to papers that are also sometimes rather strange. Often, when I get back to the hotel room from a day of conference attendance, I would really like to unwind by having a trained expert run their warm-oiled fingers over my naked body and untense the muscles that the day's stresses have knotted up. I felt the need in Boston after hours of sitting in sometimes frigid rooms at the LSA (Linguistic Society of America), for example, and also at the MLA (Modern Language Association) back in December in San Diego. So I often browse the advertisements for massage specialists that I see in local papers and the yellow pages. But I don't place that call to make the arrangements.

And I'll tell you why. It's not about any hesitancy concerning fragrant oils being applied to my naked torso by a total stranger. I'm cool with that. The hesitancy is linguistic. (This is Language Log, isn't it?) It's this: I have quite simply never been able to figure out, despite an intimate and extensive acquaintance with the syntax and semantics and word formation principles of English, what incall and outcall mean. I am perfectly able to guess what the two meanings are -- one of them means that the masseur or masseuse sits in an upstairs room above a neon sign with scented candles and fragrant oils playing quiet nose-flute music on a stereo and waits for you to take a taxi to where they are, and the other means that the masseur or masseuse loads a folding massage table into a station wagon and grabs a travel case of fragrant oils and a boom box and some nose flute cassettes and brings their equipment and manual skills to you wherever you are. But which one means which?

The problem is that two directions and two people's points of view are involved. In one scenario the client calls in -- first, by telephone to find out where the room is, and then by climbing the stairs and entering the room with the scented candles -- so perhaps that would be incall. But in that same scenario the client also has to call out on the phone from the hotel to find where it is, and go out to that address, so in a sense it could also be thought of as outcall: you call out and then you go out.

On the other hand, in the second scenario, with the station wagon, the massage practitioner comes in, hauling the massage table and travel case and boom box into your room, so perhaps that would be incall. Yet from a different perspective, to do it they have to go out when you call out to order their services, and they travel in the station wagon out to wherever the client is; so perhaps that would mean it was outcall.

I simply don't see it. Either could mean either. I don't want anyone to just tell me, you understand: if I can't see how it follows by some sort of linguistic principles, I will just forget it again. I want to see which meaning goes with which word, I want to understand it, to grok it. This is my language. I also don't want to have to place a call to someone who only does whatever incall is and ask for what actually counts as outcall, or the converse. That would be as embarrassing as uttering an eggcorn. I am supposed to know this language; I'm a native speaker. So that's why I never make arrangements for a massage when I'm away on a trip. I think about it, but then I just founder on the semantic puzzle all over again, and fall asleep wondering which meaning goes with which word.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 13, 2004 02:55 PM