October 13, 2006

Pubic information

Intrigued by Arnold Zwicky's story of an MSNBC news item too prudish to actually use the word that appeared by misprint on a ballot in Ottawa County, Michigan, yet not intrigued enough to actually want to go look up the ballot language in question, I was left merely imagining what could possibly be in a ballot issue (which I take to mean a referendum proposition, like California's unending series of such propositions) that could induce a genuine ambiguity about whether public or pubic was meant. (The law says that if the error could alter the "context" of a ballot issue, the ballots must be reprinted, and they decided they did have to reprint.) My best guess was that it would have to be something like:

It shall be illegal to smoke in any {pubic / public} area.

Which reminds me inexorably of the good old dirty joke that I'm sure all Language Log readers will remember from junior high school. But this one trades on a nice lexical polysemy; and besides, you can never hear a good old dirty joke too many times. So here it is again, kids!

Q:   Do you smoke after sex?

A:   I don't know. I never looked.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 13, 2006 06:21 PM