Friday, October 22, 2004

The Table that Just Left

Linguists are always noticing quirky uses of language, what with all the spoonerisms, "eggcorns", Bushisms, and creative uses of grammar common to everyday speech. I notice things too, though the things I notice are not so much linguistic oddities as representational ones. My favorite example of all time is a convoluted instance of metonymy uttered by a friend of mine in the course of an ordinary conversation. She is a restaurant owner, and was talking about one of her employees, a bus boy, whom I think she had a bit of a crush on. In the course of the story, she mentioned that she told the bus boy:

"Go clean the table that just left."

I was blown away. What a metonymy! The "table" refers to both the actual table, and to the person who was sitting it, but had just left. Naturally, the bus boy had no problem understanding that she meant to clean the table itself, and not the person sitting at it, but he also knew exactly which table she meant. That may not seem very impressive to you, but try coming up with an account of how that works cognitively! I suspect a linguistic analysis would be tough, too. Then again, we can always blend it.