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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Triad of the Tried and True
1. "Do you have a larger-scale map?"

Does larger-scale mean showing a larger amount of territory in the same amount of space? Or does it mean the opposite - i.e. making the territory appear larger on the map itself? Both make sense to me.

2. "We put the meeting back a week."

Does this mean that the meeting has been "put back" into the past - i.e. it will now happen one week earlier than originally intended? Or does it mean it it has been delayed - i.e. it will happen one week later? I can never remember.

3. "Up to 50% Sale."

Does this mean that the highest price of all items in the sale is 50% of its RRP? Or that that's the lowest price? Is the glass half full or half empty?

Currently I know the answers to all these questions, because I just looked them up. But I've done that before, and I know from experience that I will forget again very shortly. We can explain the problem by reference to the inherent ambiguity of these phrases, but then all language is ambiguous. The problem lies in me, surely - but is it a problem at all? I read in Mary Butts's journals that she (a fluent French speaker) could never remember the difference between demain and hier - which speaks to me of a similar trick of the brain. She saw this as a sign of her mystical semi-detachment from the realm of linear time, rather than an inability to learn basic vocabulary. That's base self-flattery, of course - but it's a tempting thought.

They put the meeting back/ahead a week is ambiguous for a specific reason -- there are (at least) two ways of metaphorically conceptualizing time as space. In one metaphor, time is a landscape through which you move into the future, and events are fixed objects in that landscape; therefore "ahead" means "further into the future" and "back" means "further into the past". But in the other metaphor, you are a stationary observer, and time is a series of event-objects that are moving towards and past you; defined with reference to the "front" of these objects (the side facing their direction of movement), "ahead" means "towards the past" and "back" means "towards the future".

I think that's right. Both metaphors seem equally valid to me, and I can't remember which one actually applies.

I don't think there's anything rare and special about the demain / hier confusion; I had French students with the same difficulty over yesterday / tomorrow. You know there's a pair of words, and you know the difference between them, you just don't know which is which.

As for 'Up to 50% Sale', I'm not all confused about this one. I know what it means and it doesn't mean what the shop wants me to think it means. So there!

I'm having much the same difficulty with east and west in Japanese. Nishi and higashi - but which is which? North and south, for some reason, give me no trouble at all.

I remember that higashi means east, mainly because it's the only Japanese character I know -- I had a teacher in seventh grade called Gary Higashi who taught us all how to write it. So that got me, er, oriented :-)

One of my daughters had an awful time remembering that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. She finally memorized it after learning some song about sunset. As this was the same kid who had trouble understanding why ordered pairs in math had to be ordered, and other very similar difficulties, I think it was to do with an underlying mild dyslexia. (She also took much longer than the others to settle on handedness; I was hoping she'd be left-handed like my mother and sister, but in the end she plumped for her right.)

As I've mentioned here before, I'm strongly lefthanded, but I've never had any trouble wish spelling or reading. I do seem to have more than my fair of this kind of conceptual dyslexia, though, if we can call it that.

I love Mary Butts. I should read her journals.

I was always puzzled by "You can't be too careful." Did that suggest excessive caution was dangerous? Of that extreme caution was warranted?

I once had a collection of ambiguous proverbs and apothogems. Is it good or bad to gather no moss. In the conflict between the best and the good, whose side should one take?

My ex edited the journals (and wrote the biography), and hence I did a lot of research in what we may call Butts studies. (There's a rather dismissive mention of me in the Acknowledgements - I think she found my enthusiasm rather oppressive by the end.)

I remember being confused by "Spare the rod and spoil the child," which was clearly a recommendation that one should eschew corporal punishment and buy the kids lots of luxury goods, but never seemed to be used that way.

Then there's "I could care less," which doesn't make sense from any angle, at least to my English eye.

One phrase which genuinely confused me as a child was "out of wedlock" which I took to mean from wedlock, rather than without wedlock, as in, say, "it came out of nowhere."

I haven't had any trouble with large v. small scale maps ever since I memorably asked for the wrong one once when I was 15.

Come to think of it, I recently discovered the perils lying in the phrase "this weekend" vs. "next weekend". I take them as having a period during the week when they're synonymous, but other people don't.

Edited at 2013-12-09 02:56 pm (UTC)

I find "next weekend" very unreliable. Said on a Monday, it seems definitely to refer to the succeeding weekend; said on a Friday morning, it seems to refer to the weekend after that. At what point in between does its designation change? No one knows.

Oh, yes they know. They just disagree with each other, but it isn't until confusion arises thereby that they realize it.

I've run into trouble with this recently with US English speakers. As you say, by Friday morning, I believe that 'next' has changed meaning. But, in June/July this year, I was doing Twitter and Facebook for Worldcon 2014, and I said 'see you next August'. This caused panic among some US readers, who thought that they'd got the year wrong, and were supposed to be turning up in London *this* year....

... whereas, if you'd meant that you'd have said "See you in August", I presume.

Yes! Or, even more likely, "See you next month" or "See you soon".