August 08, 2004

Chocolate teapots and fireguards

In response to my post on idiomic similes for superfluity and uselessness in German and English, several people emailed to draw my attention to common expressions such as "as useless as a chocolate teapot" or "as a chocolate fireguard".

To me, these expressions were as novel and idiosyncratic as phrases like "as worthless as a Jello pool cue". However, the woods are full of 'em, as my first-year Latin teacher used to say about whatever expression, form or construction I had just failed to construe correctly. "Chocolate teapot" has 2,750 ghits, and "chocolate fireguard" another 2,740. Even subtracting the many references to "Chocolate Fireguard Music Ltd." and similar enterprises, it's clear that these are phrases in common use. I suppose that I've never heard them because neither teapots nor fireguards are in everyday use in most U.S. households, and so expressions involving them are unlikely to spread. Of course, most Americans don't meet up with boars every day either, but expressions like "useless as teats on a boar hog" presumably spread at a time when things were different.

These expressions add to the evidence cited earlier for an interest in functionality among English speakers, perhaps contrasting with an interest among German speakers in counts relative to quotas. This new investigation suggests confirmation for a different stereotype: the recent obsession with definition and harmonization of international standards among European academics, due to the funding priorities of the European Commission. The highest ranked page for "chocolate teapot" is this article: Simon Bradshaw, Amanda Baker, Bridget Bradshaw, John Bray, Gordon Brignal, David Clements & Del Cotter, "An Appraisal of the Utility of a Chocolate Teapot", Plotka (issue 23 volume 6 number 2), May 2001:

THE CHOCOLATE teapot remains popular as a general comparative standard for the failure of an object to perform in accordance with its intended function, rivalled only by its close relative (in terms of composition, if not morphology), the chocolate fireguard. However, whilst numerous items are colloquially labelled as being ‘as useful as a chocolate teapot', there does not appear to be any objective standard for the usefulness, or indeed uselessness, of a chocolate teapot itself. In the absence of any British, European or ANSI Standard, Def Stan or MIL-STD for this important but poorly-specified reference item, it was decided to conduct an independent assessment of exactly how much use one of them was. As well as filling an significant gap in the standards literature, it was felt that this study would add to the body of work published in the Annals of Improbable Research on the scientific evaluation of common metaphors (Sandford, 1995; Paskevich and Shea, 1995; Dubik and Wood, 1995; collected in Abrahams, 1998).

I have to agree with the referee's comments, which begin:

THE AUTHORS have attempted to define an objective standard for the usefulness of a chocolate teapot based on experimental measurements. Although this is a laudable undertaking the authors have only been partially successful in their aim. There are a number of problems with their approach:-

1.  For any standard method it is necessary to have data which are statistically robust. The authors describe a single experiment with one chocolate teapot and make no attempt to investigate variability and reliability within a single chocolate teapot grade or the grade to grade variation between chocolate teapots from different suppliers. The behaviour observed may have been specific to the teapot tested. Only a much larger research programme could determine if these results are representative.

There are three other comments and a suggestion for an alternative mode of instrumentation, all quite compelling in my view.

American informality (not to say sloppiness) with respect to these matters is underlined by the fact there are apparently no standards documents whatsoever based on experimental investigations of the utility of nipples on male mammals. Over to you, NIST.

[ Note: let me try to forestall misunderstanding by saying that most of the content of this post is intended as a joke. I'm not sure whether English speakers and German speakers really differ in their attitudes towards functionality vs. quota fulfillment. I tend to doubt it, but in any case a small handful of stereotype-confirming Google counts is preposterously bad evidence. Not to speak of the fact that both groups are exceedingly diverse. There certainly are cultural differences in things like this, and evidence from language usage could be relevant to studying such differences, but the evidence that I've presented is a joke (in several meanings of that word), not a valid argument of any sort.

I'm quite sure that European academics are more interested in standards than American academics are, and that this is a response to recent funding contingencies caused by the problems of European integration. It may also reflect different attitudes towards the role and value of government planning and regulation, top-down vs. bottom-up activity, and so on. But the teapots vs. nipples thing is again a joke, in this case confirming a belief held for very different sorts of reasons. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 8, 2004 10:47 AM