June 03, 2005

Polysemy in action

Eric Bakovic is puzzled by a line in Team America: World Police. "[A] Team America member is temporarily fooled by an actor, so he says to Gary: 'I could've sworn she was telling the truth.' To which Gary replies: 'That's why they call it acting.'" Eric explains "When the x of that's why they call it x has (or at least evokes) two somewhat different meanings, the expression makes perfect sense", but he doesn't think this is what's going on with Gary's quip.

The American Heritage Dictionary's entry for acting as a noun lists three senses:

1. The occupation of an actor or actress.
2. Performance as an actor or actress.
3. False behavior; pretense.

So the Team America line could mean: "Acting1 is acting3," exactly according to Eric's prescription, right?

A quick web search turns up many other uses of the "that's why they call it X" phrasal template that also conform to Eric's interpretation in terms of polysemy:

That's why they call it the blues.
That's why they call it work.
That's why they call it racing.
That's why they call it space.
That's why they call it hunting.

If only for indexing purposes, I'll also point out that we've been calling these phrasal templates snowclones, following Glen Whitman's suggested coinage.

I wonder how many such templatic clichés we have in English? Of course, a category like this has fuzzy boundaries -- how many times does an attractive phrase need to be copied before it qualifies? -- but it wouldn't surprise me to find that there are thousands of patterns that are clearly in the set.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 3, 2005 06:03 AM