January 06, 2007

Benny, call home

This week I got a call from an Illinois lawyer, who requested a copy of an article I wrote over  forty years ago. He  told me that he needed my article for a court case in which his clients were suing a rubber factory because of permanent injuries they allegedly received from using benzene in the process of producing automobile tires. My article was called "Tire Worker Terms," a bit of lexicography concerning the specialized vocabulary of tire workers. Pretty tame text. Hardly the stuff of lawsuits. But it kindled some thoughts about the work linguists do.

Back in those days I wanted to jumpstart my academic career by getting some articles in print so I decided to tap into my earlier grad school days, when I worked the night shift at one of Akron's largest tire companies. With the endorsement and help of the plant manager and other officials, I supplemented my own two-year experience there with additional fieldwork, interviewing dozens of helpful, talkative, and knowledgeable tire workers all over the plant (note: once a fieldworker, always a fieldworker).

My research was published in American Speech (volume 39, number 4, December, 1964). It wasn't much of an article and I haven't had reason to think about it since and, mercifully, neither has anybody else. Until this week, that is.

Then came the phone call. "Of course we used benzene," I told the lawyer. "Why does this matter?" He told me that his clients believe using benzene on the job caused them to contract leukemia. "So why on earth do you want my article?" I asked. His answer: "Because representatives of the rubber company say that benzene, a.k.a. benny, was never used in the production of tires."

I dug out a copy of my article, which listed and defined some 200 terms associated with the tire production process. I thought I could remember "benny" as one of them but after all these years I had to check, just be be certain. Sure enough, in the B section was the following:

BENNY, n. A gasoline mixture used by the tirebuilder (see BUILDER) to clear foreign elements from the surface of the tread or fabric with which he is working and add tack  to the various piles and treads.

I know, there's a "he" in my definition. But please remember that this was 1964, long before we knew any better. As I read this to the lawyer on the phone, he told me that this definition was exactly what he needed to impeach the testimony of the company representative who had strongly denied that benzene ever played a part in the tire building process.

The sobering thing about all this is that linguists often can't predict how our articles and research may turn out to be helpful in ways we never thought about. We find a problem, gather our data, analyze and generalize as much as possible, and write up our results. Then 43 years later we get a phone call.

Neat, huh?

Posted by Roger Shuy at January 6, 2007 05:53 PM