October 03, 2006

I say potable, you say portable

Marginally related to Mark's recent posts about the new vs. old wineskins (see here, also here), Kathleen Fasanella reports a more modern example over the container issue, in this case what to call water that is fit  to drink.  The link shows the lettering  on the  back of  a  tank truck that was located somewhere  between  El Paso and Las Cruces,  which reads , "NON PORTABLE WATER." That couldn't be right though. Obviously it was portable, since it was being transported  in a tanker-type truck and apparently was being either filled or emptied at an adjacent fire hydrant. So why would the truck lettering say it wasn't  portable?

I can't say for sure but I wonder if several factors were at work. Most likely, the company simply   confused "portable" with "potable." Who uses "potable" anyway these days? Also, "potable" probably sounds a lot like "portable"  to people who play free and loose with their "r" sounds (rhoticity is the uppity linguistic word for this).  Some folks stick /r/ sounds into places that they don't belong and others drop them in certain positions of words. I grew up saying "framiliar," for example, but I faithfully preserved  my /r/ in words like "car" or "teacher." There's a lot of that going around, keeping dialectologist busy.

So was this truck's sign an aberration of some kind?  I  checked  "portable water" on Google, getting 596,000 hits for it, the vast majority of which aroused no suspicion whatsoever. They were associated mostly with portable water tanks, purifiers, filtration systems, bags, bowls (for potty training), sport cases, dog dishes, testing kits, heaters, hose adapters, and pumps. Then I checked "potable water" and got a million and a half hits, mostly associated with potable water tanks, treatment, reclamation, supplies, studies, installations, quality, contamination, applications, technologies, and chemistry.

Apparently the larger world of print hasn't fallen into the "portable/potable" sink hole, at least not yet. Well, except for the signage on the truck somewhere in the Southwestern US. But keep your eyes open, it may happen next door at any time. And when it does, we can all have a good chuckle.

Update: I spoke too soon. Mark advised me to try "water is not portable." I did and it gave me 251 items like: "tap water is not portable in China" and a sign near the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, "this water is not portable." Lots of water transportation going on I guess.

Posted by Roger Shuy at October 3, 2006 02:39 PM