August 23, 2005

You can call it x all you want

Back in June, I puzzled over a particular example of a snowclone that I heard in a movie and on the radio: "that's why they call it acting". Several responses came in almost immediately, some saying basically the same thing as (or agreeing with) Mark's analysis: the dictionary definition of acting offers appropriate multiple senses of the word to render the example not so remarkable after all.

I'm not here to argue against this completely reasonable, polysemy-based analysis of the "... acting" example, but I do still wonder -- as do some of my correspondents -- if that's what the people who used the example were thinking when they decided to use it. My doubts are primarily fueled by other examples of the "that's why they call it x" snowclone that I've come across, including the "that's why they call it money" example that I noted at the end of my original post. I think a strict polysemy analysis of any of these examples (if one is even possible) is far more of a stretch than it is for the "... acting" example.

What I mean by "strict polysemy" here is critical, because I'll contrast it with "loose polysemy" in a moment. The way I'm defining it, the word substituting for x in the "that's why they call it x" snowclone is "strictly polysemous" if it has a generally agreed-upon set of senses (as defined, say, by a dictionary), at least two of which can be convincingly argued to be invoked and compared/contrasted by the snowclone. (I do realize that "generally agreed-upon" and "convincingly" are major points of weakness in this definition, but I'll go on for lack of a better way to put it.) For example, money has at least the following seven senses:

1. A medium that can be exchanged for goods and services and is used as a measure of their values on the market, including among its forms a commodity such as gold, an officially issued coin or note, or a deposit in a checking account or other readily liquifiable account.
2. The official currency, coins, and negotiable paper notes issued by a government.
3. Assets and property considered in terms of monetary value; wealth.
4a. Pecuniary profit or loss. b. One's salary; pay.
5. An amount of cash or credit: raised the money for the new playground.
6. Sums of money, especially of a specified nature. Often used in the plural.
7. A wealthy person, family, or group.

Unlike Mark's analysis of the "... acting" example, I just don't see how any two of the senses above can be contrasted to explain the "... money" example, so money is not strictly polysemous in the sense that I've defined to be relevant to this post (though I'm looking forward to the flood of correspondence I'm likely to get on this conclusion).

What I'd like to suggest is a weaker, "loose polysemy" analysis of the "that's why they call it x" snowclone: two relevant senses are coerced for x, even when the two senses can't be matched up (by the listener) with generally agreed-upon senses of x. In other words, what makes the "that's why they call it money" example interesting is the fact that you are forced to imagine what money might mean other than the obvious sense in 1. above -- you might even go through the other senses in 2. through 7. in your head, find that none does the trick, and arrive at the (I think intended) interpretation that the speaker is obsessed with money. (The "... acting" example was also interesting to me in this vague sort of way, at least until Mark and others showed me that relevant senses are available.)

Here are a few more examples I've been collecting, all of which have the same basic loose-polysemy flavor (to me) as the "... money example.

From the pilot episode of Monk:

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub): "How long have you and Warren been married?"
Miranda St. Claire (Gail O'Grady): "Five years."
Monk: "Must be tough -- he's so busy, and now he's running for mayor. I would think that would be kind of stressful."
St. Claire: "You've been married, right?"
Monk: "Yes, I have."
St. Claire: "Then I don't have to tell you: every marriage is stressful. That's why they call it marriage."

1a. The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife. b. The state of being married; wedlock. c. A common-law marriage. d. A union between two persons having the customary but usually not the legal force of marriage: a same-sex marriage.
2. A wedding.
3. A close union.
4. Games The combination of the king and queen of the same suit, as in pinochle.

From 3rd World Bomb Squad (warning: graphic/tasteless/not-for-the-faint-of-heart), "an apparently real-life video clip" (forwarded to me by Neil Whitman, who heard about it elsewhere) with accompanying commentary (insert [sic] where appropriate):

Frame 1: Let me get this straight. You find a briefcase abandoned in a third world country and you think it might be a bomb.
Frame 2: What should you do?
Frame 3: (A) Open it and find out what's inside.
Frame 4: (B) Allow bystanders to look over your shoulder and crowd around
Frame 5: (C) Open it yourself without any protective equipment while being assisted by another officer equally unprotected, [pause] all while other officers are present who at least have body armor on.
Frame 6: (D) All of the above [pause] What do you think Third World Police Officer picked......
[This is followed by a 35-second video clip of a group of men crouched around a briefcase, which explodes, apparently killing some and injuring others.]
Frame 7: Thats why they're called 3rd world countries.

(Speaking of Neil Whitman: back in December, he discussed another kind of "that's why they call it x" example.)

One more example: I agree with Bridget at Ilani Ilani that the Elton John / Bernie Taupin lyric "I guess that's why they call it the blues" doesn't make much sense: the only sense being talked about in the song, as far as I can tell, is "feeling blue" -- sure, there's the salient sense of "blues music", but ...

And another, by way of Ben Zimmer (added 10/7/2005):

In Tuesday's episode of "Veronica Mars", Veronica is investigating a man's death, and she brings together his grieving daughter (Jessie) and his mistress (Carla) for the first time. The dialogue goes:

     Carla: You look just like your picture.
     Jessie (bitterly): That's why they call them *pictures*.

Here, the sense seems to be "Duh, the whole purpose of a picture is to resemble the person pictured." So the snowclone works to underscore the tautological obviousness of Carla's opening pleasantry, which Jessie explicitly rejects. (Jessie later warms up to Carla, of course.)

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Posted by Eric Bakovic at August 23, 2005 02:28 PM