March 12, 2008

Hair care blasphemy and predatory text

It must have just swept the execs off their feet when the Jemella ad agency suggested it: a series of advertisements would feature young and attractive women — hot babes with great hair — in poses suggesting prayer, with ecstatic expressions on their faces, and text of a religious-sounding nature, advertising ghd IV hair styling equipment. Like, we'll have a woman kneeling in prayer — a hot babe, in her lingerie — and she'll be saying "May my new curls make her feel choked with jealousy"! Or a woman with a votive candle praying "Make him dump her tonight and come home with me"! And we'll have phrases like "A new religion for hair" on the screen; and "Thy will be done", with the "T" of the first word shaped like a crucifix! It'll be so great! You can imagine the suits in the boardroom thrilling to the idea of this confluence of erotic and religious imagery combining to sell product. And they bought it. Only Jemella had misjudged it: the Archdeacon of Liverpool and many others complained to the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and the ads have been deemed "likely to cause serious offence, particularly to Christians." You've seen the Danish cartoonist versus Islam; now, just when you thought it was safe to go outside again, it's hair care product ads versus the ASA and the Archdeacon of Liverpool!

Andrew West has pointed out to me that in the BBC News report about this, we read:

The advert juxtaposed the words 'thy will be done' alongside erotic images of women accompanied by predatory text.

But, he asks, what the hell is "predatory text"? We've heard of predatory animals and predatory behavior. But predatory text seems semantically anomalous. Could it be a Cupertinoesque spelling-correction error? From what? Could it be a fanciful metonymic usage? Could it be a malapropism? I don't know what they mean. Andrew notes that it does not come from the original ASA adjudication. At the time of first posting this, I was at a loss for a hypothesis. Yet within minutes...

Yes, within minutes of my first posting the above, a chemist at the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics of the US Environmental Protection Agency, whom I will not name because he may have emailed me on government time, sent a suggestion which is extremely plausible. I wonder if you can guess what the word was that the spelling checker incorrected, or the typist mistyped? It is beautiful. Absolutely perfect. Don't underestimate government chemists.

Don't mail me about it. I have enough mail. Just think, and check back. In the fullness of time — in a day or so — I will reveal all, right here on Language Log.

Update: All right, so you will not obey me, you lawless rabble. Many of you have mailed me. And do you know who the first person was who mailed me after I posted the above very clear instruction "Don't mail me about it"? It was Mark Liberman. Yes, the freakin' CEO of the Language Log Inc. That's how close I am to being able to get people to pay attention to my commands: even my colleague at One Language Log Plaza, the chief executive of our multinational language edutainment corporation, won't toe the line.

I suppose I have to tell you what Mark mailed to say. But first, so you don't pester me, I'll tell you the word that the anonymous government environmental toxicological chemist thinks might have been intended: the word he suggested was precatory. It means "expressive of a wish", and it comes from the Latin verb meaning "pray". That is a beautiful, beautiful hypothesis. The letters c and d are adjacent on the keyboard as well as in the alphabet, and precatory, with only 53,400 raw Google hits, is vastly rarer than predatory, which gets roughly 4.9 million (two orders of magnitude more).

Now to Mark. What he mailed to me (against my express instructions, but who the hell listens to me) was the point that women are described as predatory when they seek to attract the male companions of other women, and text that suggested such predatory behavior might be called predatory text, in the context at hand.

And while I was typing this, Norman Macleod mailed me (the flow is unstoppable) to say he thought perhaps it could have been prefatory that was meant (notice that d and f are neighbours on the QWERTY keyboard). Though it's semantically less plausible.

So we have three competing hypotheses on the table. One says it was an incorrection from precatory; another says it was an incorrection from prefatory; and the third says it's a metonymic use of predatory and not an error at all.

So here's what I want you to do: Don't mail me about it. I'm serious. I get too much email. Although I never put my email address in a Language Log post, people look me up (I'm a professor in a public institution of great renown, I can be easily found) and get my address and mail me anyway, all the time. But I've had it with this one: if you email me about this, I will put a curse on you. Your skin will break out in boils; your teeth will itch where you can't reach to scratch them; your car will develop an annoying whiny rattle that will stop whenever a mechanic listens; your bananas will go directly from green to black without passing through yellow; your country music albums will play backwards so that your dog comes back to life... I'm warning you, bad shit will happen all over in your life. Don't test me.

If you want to complain about this new and admittedly harsh policy of mine, feel free to send your whiny, snivelling messages to, where we have rigged up a program that runs 24 hours a day to send out blandly polite responses and delete the incoming message. Just like what the White House runs.

Look, we don't know whether the (anonymous) BBC website writer meant predatory or precatory or prefatory. We'll never know. I don't even want to know. I have no idea why I started this thread.

It's late in the evening here in the Edinburgh office, OK? I'm going to bed. And if I find in the morning that any of you (unless of course you're the anonymous BBC website writer) have emailed me with your crazy-ass, off-the-wall, seat-of-the-pants, cockamamie, addle-brained theories about this question, I am going to be so mad that the cork and the bubble-truck will tumble from the mountaintop as far as I'm concerned; I'll light up every tuba tent and walleyed river king from 44 to the roller coaster. So don't provoke me. THE END.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 12, 2008 10:04 AM