February 09, 2004

They can spam

With great struggle, the lawmakers who crafted the name of the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act managed to get its acronym to be CAN SPAM.

You are meant to read can spam as a verb and its direct object: can is a regular transitive verb (forms: can, cans, canned, canning), to be read here in the 3rd sense of the 3rd entry given by Webster's, "to put a stop or end to"; and spam is meant to be a noun meaning "unsolicited mass-mailed electronic mail messages".

What a pity there is another parse of can spam available: can also exists as an irregular and defective modal auxiliary verb (forms: can, could), with deontic (permission), epistemic (possibility), and dynamic (ability) senses, and spam can be a (transitive or intransitive) verb meaning "send [someone] unsolicited mass-mailed electronic mail messages".

When I originally read about "the Can Spam Act" I actually thought for a moment it was using the modal sense of can -- that it was an act intended to ensure that corporations can spam us, and the name just came right out and said so. A stupid mistake of mine. I should have realized after the "Clean Air Act" (a law that liberalizes air pollution regulations) and the "No Child Left Behind" act (which forces public schools to spend time on morale-destroying administration of tests instead of education), and so on, I should have realized that no law designed to permit bad stuff would have an honest name. Laws always get named in a way that suggests they are doing good stuff, and there is nothing good about spam.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 9, 2004 07:20 PM