Psycho Babble

Derailed By “Who’s On First”

On committing to the wrong thing

By Jessica Love | December 6, 2012


“Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it—that goes by the cult name of ‘Camp.’” So begins Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’” When I stumbled across the piece a few years back, however, the earnestly artificial aesthetic couldn’t have been further from my mind. Indeed, I was a good 500 words in before it occurred to me that Sontag was not referring to a week at Camp Wildwood.

Upon encountering a truly ambiguous word like bug or bolt, all of its meanings—at least the reasonably common ones—are immediately activated. Then context, either linguistic or situational, intervenes, and the irrelevant meanings are pruned away. This selection process happens without conscious struggle and within a fraction of a second. Most healthy adults are really good at resolving these types of ambiguities.

But not perfect. Summer camp does have a certain mystique, a “you had to be there” quality that postcards home never quite capture. And it is nothing if not an unmistakably modern phenomenon; in times gone by, building fires and sleeping in rudimentary structures wasn’t “camp” so much as “life.” In cases like this, when context provides somewhat reasonable support for multiple interpretations—or, perhaps more accurately, doesn’t provide enough evidence to overturn the interpretation we initially favor—confusion ensues.

Elizabeth Allyn Smith, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Quebec at Montreal, recently participated in a debacle reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first” routine and its plethora of parodies. Some background: “Quebec” can refer to either the province or to Quebec City. Laval is a smaller city outside of Montreal, and a university in Quebec City.

One day, Smith asked a colleague where he was from.

“Laval,” he responded, referring to the university.

“Oh, I was just in Laval!” Smith said, referring to the city. (She’d recently crossed the river dividing Montreal and Laval to buy a storage trunk.)

“Oh!” said her colleague. “Was it your first time in Quebec?” he asked, referring to the city.

“No,” said Smith, surprised by the question. “My first time in Quebec”—here she was referring to the province—”was when I interviewed for a job.”

“Ah, so you interviewed at Laval as well as the University of Montreal at Quebec?” he asked.

“No, the University of Montreal at Quebec is the only place in Canada I interviewed,” Smith replied.

Her conversant was, by now, entirely befuddled. “Why would you interview there for a job here?”

“The interaction went back and forth for 10 minutes,” Smith told me, “before finally someone else took us aside and said, ‘I think you’re talking about four different places.’”

Other examples aren’t hard to come by: the friend who, several minutes into a conversation about “cotton mouth,” realized that nobody had anything caught in her mouth; the extensive confusion over a female colleague named Xi, pronounced “she” (“Dominique is helping me in the lab.” “Xi is helping me.” “Oh, wow, she sounds busy…”); and—from linguist Mike Phelan—the ever-problematic, “She thought we were talking about Plato. I thought we were talking about Play-Doh.”

But these examples are more than slapstick fodder. It’s not surprising that confusions arise. But, I think, the extent to which confusions persevere is surprising. Our preferred method for integrating incongruous information is not to revisit a faulty premise, it seems, but to squeeze and stretch the existing premise in ever more convoluted ways to fit the new information.

Which pretty much sounds like human behavior more generally. Even scientists are not immune. Thomas Kuhn has theorized that “normal science” builds on past findings: Discovery A is refined by Discovery B. But still there are gaps and contradictions, mismatches between puzzle and solution. So the existing scientific framework is plugged and patched until, inevitably, the mismatches are too numerous or important to be explained away. Then and only then is the framework itself ever questioned.

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