April 09, 2007

Ducky identity

When is a duck a dog?  When it's one of the chimeric Dog Rubber Duckies on the Oriental Trading Company site:

(There are also Cat Rubber Duckies in the catalogue, but they're not at the moment available on-line.)

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, who sent me this link, suggests that we see here an extension of the word ducky.  Certainly, the expression rubber duck(y) is even less semantically transparent here than in ordinary usage.

And then there's a spelling issue: ducky or duckie, duckys or duckies?

But first, the identity issue: are these things (simulacra of) dogs, with the shape of ducks, or are they (simulacra of) ducks that look like dogs?  Or both?  The OTC site has it both ways:

Dog Rubber Duckies. No bones about it, these vinyl duckies resemble playful puppies! A thoughtful gift for any dog lover, each adorable hound wears a colorful collar.

OTC's claim -- not that anyone thought these things through -- seems to be that they are duckies that RESEMBLE puppies, and they also ARE (adorable) hounds (in the generic 'dog' sense of hound). 

I'd say that they are dog rubber duckies 'rubber duckies that are dogs', and they are duckies only by virtue of having the overall shape of ducks, not by being (simulacra of) ducks.  This is one step beyond the usual duckies, which are clearly simulacra of ducks, though sometimes in non-duck outfits.

With this in mind, consider the four other types of rubber duckies illustrated on the site:

Unicorn Rubber Duckys
Fairy Tale Rubber Duckys
Ninja Rubber Duckies
Devil Rubber Duckys

(Notice the variation in the spelling of the plural.  I'll get to this later.)

You could argue that these are duckies dressed up as unicorns, fairy tale characters, ninjas, and devils, respectively -- duckies in costumes.  That is, they could be seen as X rubber duckies 'rubber duckies that are Xs', where being X is understood as an accidental rather than essential property; they're things that are, in their essence, duck-simulacra, though they are Xs for the moment, in the same way that my granddaughter was a lion last Halloween.  I just can't take that view of the dog rubber duckies above; they are way too doggy.

To sum up: the expression rubber duck(ie) is, in its ordinary use, not fully transparent semantically: duck(ie) denotes not actual ducks, but merely duck-simulacra.  The expression is then available as the second element in a larger noun-noun compound X rubber duck(ie), where X denotes an accidental identity of the rubber duckie ('a rubber duck(ie) that is an X for the moment').  However, the duck(ie) in rubber duck(ie) can be extended to cover things that are imperfect even as duck-simulacra, in that they merely have the overall shape of a (conventional representation of a) duck.  Then X rubber duck(ie) can denote things that are essentially X-like rather than just accidentally X-like.

In fact, rubber duck(ie) is somewhat opaque semantically in both of its parts.  As the Wikipedia page -- yes, there's a rubber duck Wikipedia page -- says, a rubber duck(ie)

... is made of rubber or rubber-like material such as vinyl plastic.  Almost all modern rubber ducks are made out of vinyl plastic rather than rubber.

And if you go back and look at the OTC's description of its dog rubber duckies, you'll see that they're referred to as "vinyl duckies", duckies made of vinyl.  They are, in fact, vinyl rubber duckies, with rubber duckie treated as a fixed expression that just happens to contain the word rubber, but with vinyl understood literally.  Sort of like plastic glasses.

The Wikipedia page also recognizes variability in the world of rubber duckies:

Rubber ducks can be found in various colors, sizes, shapes, and outfits.

[Caption for an illustration] Some variations on the standard rubber duck.  Clockwise from left: a miniature rubber duck, a purple devil rubber duck, a rubber duck dressed as a reindeer for Christmas, a rubber duck in sunglasses, and a black "dead" rubber duck that floats upside down

[Addendum: Mae Sander points out a hilarious CelebriDucks site, with all sorts of rubber duckies that have the barest resemblance to ducks: "collectible celebrity rubber ducks of the greatest icons of film, music, history, and athletics."]

Finally, the Wikipedia page tackles the spelling question:

The rubber duck can be referred to informally as a rubber duckie or a rubber ducky.  Amongst collectors of rubber ducks, the spelling rubber duckie has achieved prominence, but both spellings are considered acceptable.

(I'm impressed by the serious tone of the rubber duck Wikipedia page in general, but this passage is especially wonderful.)

In some places, you can see what looks like free variation in spelling.  On one site that gives the words and music to the Sesame Street song -- warning: if you go there, the music starts playing right away -- the title is "Rubber Duckie", but the lyrics have "Rubber Ducky" throughout.  (The song was written by Jeff Moss, who was at Princeton with me and went on to be the founding head writer and composer-lyricist on the show, a job he absolutely adored.  Unfortunately, Jeff died in 1998, so I can't go and ask him which spelling he preferred.)

That's not the end of the spelling issue, though.  Recall that the OTC site has both duckies and duckys.  The first of these could be either the plural of duckie, with plural -s, or the plural of ducky, with final -y (following a consonant) pluralized as -ies.  The second has to be the plural of ducky, with suppression of the usual convention for spelling the plural of a noun in -y (following a consonant).  Why would that happen?

Let's look at a place where this convention is (sometimes) suspended: in the plurals of proper names.  There's only one Germany now, but there used to be two of them.  So you're going to write: "There used to be two ___."  What fills in the blank?  There are three answers, all attested:

(1) Germanies
(2) Germanys
(3) Germany's

Answer (1) follows the usual spelling convention.  It is well-formed according to usual spelling conventions for English.

Answers (2) and (3) preserve the name Germany.  They are faithful to the original.  (I'm borrowing the terminology of well-formedness vs. faithfulness from Optimality Theory, of course.  I've discussed some other conflicts between well-formedness and faithfulness here before, and hope to eventually post a good deal more on the topic; these conflicts arise all over the place.  Please note that the terms are not themselves value judgments; they merely label two values -- two things that are both good to have -- that are often in conflict with one another.)

Version (2) reverts to the default spelling rule for plurals in English, "add -s", but has the disadvantage that the result doesn't LOOK LIKE a plural, because of the final -ys (following a consonant).  Version (3) is an attempt to set off the plural element visually, with an apostrophe, as in plurals like q's (as the plural of q).  Its disadvantage is that the apostrophe looks like a spurious "greengrocer's apostrophe" (apple's for sale) -- a drawback that makes it by far the least frequent variant.  Versions (1) and (2) occur with roughly equal frequency, in raw Google webhits.

A couple of years ago, this very question arose in the newsgroup sci.lang, where a heated argument sprung up over whether the well-formed (1) or the faithful (2) was the "correct" plural.  Now, conflicts between well-formedness and faithfulness are sometimes resolved in favor of well-formedness, sometimes resolved in favor of faithfulness, and sometimes result in variation, between individuals or within individuals.  It appears that there is considerable between-individuals variation on Germanies vs. Germanys, and I suspect that there is also significant within-individuals variation for pluralization of proper names in general, with different treatments for different names (nobody's going to pluralize Mary as Maries, even people who consistently pluralize Germany as Germanies).  I'm lenient about Germanies, but adamant that the plural of my family name is Zwickys, not Zwickies; a plural Zwickys is unambiguously the plural of Zwicky, while a plural Zwickies is ambiguous between that and the plural of Zwickie (which is also an attested family name).

Which brings us back to the rubber duckies (or duckys).  The OTC site seems to be treating rubber ducky as a kind of proper name (for the type Rubber Ducky, I suppose) and then varying between the two treatments of the plural, the well-formed duckies or the faithful duckys; or it's varying between singular duckie and ducky, and consistently using the faithful duckys for the latter.  Either way, faithfulness enters into it.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 9, 2007 03:36 PM