Thursday, May 04, 2006

Compound construal

This morning I got on a flight out of Honolulu Airport (and yes, visiting Hawai'i is just as great as you think it is, at least, if you think it's great), and, waiting to check in, I saw the following sign:

Now, compounds are famously not too compositional in their internal interpretations. If alligator shoes are shoes made of alligators, then what are nurse shoes made of? But I'll eat my hat if (what I think is) the intended interpretation of this compound is actually grammatically available.

What it's supposed to indicate, I think, is that people who have checked in online (i.e. on the web) should stand in line here to drop their checked luggage (bags) off with airline personnel. But I don't think that scenario makes that location describable as a web bag drop.

If the constituency is [[web bag] drop], then on the intended interpretation, 'web bag' should be able to refer to a bag whose owner has checked in on the web. But I don't think it can. IMHO, a 'web bag' would have to be a bag made of webbing, or a bag for carrying webbing, or a bag one bought on the web (as opposed to a bag one bought in a store), or a virtual bag, akin to a virtual shopping cart, which presumably wouldn't need to be dropped at this location.

If the constituency is [web [bag drop]] then it's even worse; sounds like a virtual (i.e. on the internet) location for dropping bags, which presumably also would have to be virtual in order to be able to virtually dropped. (I'm ignoring meanings for 'drop' here like 'drop of water', which would open up a whole bunch of other possible construals, even though I didn't ignore alternative interpretations for 'web' above. So sue me). I think that's pretty much a colorless green ideas situation in the context of an actual airport.

So anyway. just a note. I usually tell my students that English N-N compound interpretation is as free as the wind blows, a wide-open interpretive nexus wherein pretty much any association between the two nouns, given a sufficiently rich context, is enough to license the compound as interpretabale (although of course there are preferred and frequent such relations, which tend to spring to mind in out-of-the-blue contexts). So different from the relationship between a predicate and its arguments, I tell them. Interpreting the relationship between two Ns in an NN compound gives one a feeling for what it might be like if language was just linearly strung together content words without hierarchical structure, I hyperbolize madly.

But here I think the intended interpretation just ain't there, despite a horrendously rich environmental context that did in fact enable me to divine what it was supposed to be. Hmm!

And just for bonus material, here's a hotel counter that amused me a few days ago:

As opposed to the Horrible Activities Center? I bet they don't get a lot of business, on either constituent structure.


Anonymous Loxias said...

I so thoroughly enjoyed this one!

12:53 AM  
Blogger squires said...

Oh, the islands. I'll be there in a few days - looks like I won't be able to use "Web Bag Drop" as one of my vacation entries!

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which kind of reminds me of the notices all over de Havillands' plant in Downsview, Toronto. It stated:
"No smoking permitted in this building", which I took to read that if you didn't want to smoke, you didn't have to!!
NB - Should have read "Smoking is not permitted in this building"

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

reminds me of the sign over a Japanese ice cream shop: 'Nice Ice Cream.'

12:23 PM  
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6:52 PM  

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