November 09, 2007

More autantonymic slogans

A couple of days ago, I cited "Go, Musharraf, go!" as a slogan with an special kind of ambiguity: it has two interpretations, one of which is the opposite (in some evaluative sense) of what its users intend. I suggested the Olympia beer slogan "It's the water" as another with the same property.

Several readers have sent in additional examples. Gregg Drube wrote:

Ten or fifteen years ago, the slogan used for the combined meetings of the South Dakota school superintendents association, the School administrators of South Dakota, and the South Dakota Education association was "Educating for Change." At that time (and still, I think) South Dakota ranked 51st (out of 50) in average pay for teachers. I'm not sure what the intended meaning of the slogan was. I was teaching math at a high school in South Dakota at that time...I know what I thought it meant.

Don Porges suggested: "You'll never outlive your money" and "See how far your dollar can go".

Bruce Rusk :

At a conference I once attended, a speaker was delayed and a written statement was read in her absence. It stated that the field of study in question "isn't going anywhere," which depending on intonation could mean either that it's "here to stay" or "just spinning its wheels."

Randy Alexander reminded me of "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux". It seems to be a matter of debate whether this was an intentional pun or not -- Wikipedia says:

In the 1960s, the company successfully marketed vacuums in the United Kingdom with the slogan "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux." British consumers took the slogan literally because "sucks" as a term of disparagement is strictly an Americanism. However, US Americans often incorrectly believe that this was a brand blunder, and this is erroneously claimed even in college business textbooks. In fact, the informal US meaning of "sucks" was already well known in the UK at the time, and the company's "marketing people were fully aware of the possible double entendre and intended it to gain attention".

But apparently this is a case where the debunkers are themselves debunked -- Jesse Sheidlower, whose business it is to know these things, writes:

The Wikipedia description of this issue is completely at variance with the facts. The verb suck 'to be notably bad' was not at all common in the 1960s, even in America (OED's first quote is 1971, and though I've since found evidence back to 1964, there isn't all that much of it; 1970 is when it really takes off). I've never seen a British example from the 1960s, and while there might be one, I absolutely refuse to believe that it "was already well known in the UK at the time".

Given the sources in which this appears in the 1960s, I'd be somewhat surprised if the marketing people even in America were aware of the meaning.

But Bob Ladd writes to disagree, at least in part:

I take issue with Jesse Sheidlower (debunking the debunker of the debunkers). The modern sense of "suck" was thoroughly alive in young people's colloquial American English when I was an undergraduate from 64-68, and I presume you can confirm that as well, unless they had a different dialect at Harvard. The key difference between then and now is that it was very definitely felt to be rude -- it had clear sexual overtones, especially when directed at a person instead of (as seems to be more common now) at things and situations. (I still find it vaguely disconcerting when my 13-year-old son uses it entirely unself-consciously in polite company.) Consequently it didn't generally make it into print for Jesse and Co. to find, any more than there very many printed occurrences of fuck, etc. Obviously, I have no idea whether it was around in British English as well, but I'd bet anything that people my age who noticed the Electrolux ad in the 1960s (I don't remember it myself) would have got a double meaning out of it.

My recollection agrees with Bob's, and I'd extend the period back to secondary school during the period 1959-1965; but I don't have any specific episodic memories that I can place definitively in time, and so I admit that I might be wrong. If the phrase was as common (although taboo) as Bob (and I) remember, it's surprising that it wouldn't occur more often in print, at least in settings like "underground newspapers" where taboo words were freely used.

Meanwhile, several people have pointed out that there is already a perfectly good word autoantonym, so what's with the form that's missing the first 'o'? I don't know -- you have to ask Ryan North, the author of the dinosaur cartoon that started this thread off.

[Update -- from Ben Zimmer:

In the mid-'90s Burger King had an ad campaign for the Whopper using Marvin Gaye's song "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing." If one were so inclined, one could interpret that as "It ain't nothing like the real thing" rather than "There ain't nothing like the real thing."

A more recent example of unfortunate burger-chain sloganeering is "You gotta eat!" for Checker's/Rally's. As King Kaufman wrote on, this could be interpreted as: "(What the Heck), Ya Gotta Eat! (or you'll starve, and eating our burgers is marginally better than starvation)."

And from Bruce Rusk:

Your post today reminded me of another, intentionally punning slogan: the Fluke trucking company proudly states, "If it's on time, it's a Fluke."


[More from the mailbag -- Robert Lieblich:

I doubt I'm the first to mention the sign in a pharmacy window: "We dispense with accuracy."

I remember the first time I was stopped by a policeman while driving in California. He walked up to me and announced that he was going to give me a citation. It was all I could do not to respond, "Thank you officer, but I think driving well is its own reward." The citation cost me a visit to traffic court and about a hundred bucks.

And then there's "Shoes and shirts must be worn." What do those of us do whose shoes and shirts are new?

Or people carrying their purchases of shoes and clothing. Compare the (linguistically) famous London underground sign "Dogs must be carried", discussed here.

From Vicky Larmour:

In the UK one of the big courier companies is Business Express. Their slogan is "A promise means nothing until it's delivered".

I think this is meant to mean "You can make promises to your customers and then trust us to deliver the goods to them on your behalf". However, once I had been given the run-around with them repeatedly promising to deliver an awaited item to me at a particular time, but completely failing to do so, I started to read the slogan in a different way....

And Gregg Drube sends another, from the Dakota Food Court: "We put the fast in breakfast!".]

[Bill Barnett writes:

Before Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy for President, a number of websites popped up selling "Run, Hillary, Run!" bumper stickers, advising Democrats to affix them to their rear bumpers, Republicans to the front. Google finds 952,000 hits for the phrase.

And Mary Tabasko writes:

I live in Pittsburgh, PA, and there used to be a local hamburger chain called Winky's. At one point, they used the slogan "Winky's makes you happy to be hungry." Since the chain is defunct (has been since the late 80s, I think), perhaps more customers went with the unintended reading.


[Tilman Stieve points out that "Nixon's the one" came to have a very different meaning during the Watergate scandal than it had during his re-election campaign.]

[Jerry Kreuscher writes:

If you have time for another, here's my long-standing favorite: "It doesn't get any better than this." That one first caught my ear decades ago as the tag-line of a TV commercial for a brand of cheap, watery beer. Since then it has amused me how people incline to understand it as high praise rather than the despair that could be intended equally well.

You could put a couple of them together: "It doesn't get any better than this -- it's the water."]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 9, 2007 08:15 AM