Wednesday, 12 September 2012

I doubt that you would suspect this

A recent Language Log post pointed out a humorously ambiguous headline:

The joke is of course that it sounds like the kebab van drove over and duffed up the hapless teen, with the by phrase expressing the agent of the jaw-breaking incident. The intended meaning is the one in which by is a preposition, and the by phrase locates the teenager at the time of the attack (ie he was by a kebab van). Much lolz ensues.

This wasn't the only humour to be wrung from the language in the headline: commenter Bobbie made the following quip, which was immediately either genuinely or wilfully misunderstood by Victor Mair:

Bobbie is taking advantage of the fact that in English, we can say that you have broken your X (if X is a body part) and it does not mean that you did the breaking. There's a term for that which I can't remember just now. Anyway, so Bobbie says what (s)he says, implying that it is unlikely to be the case that the teenager did it himself. Victor Mair's comment was initially baffling to me, because of course American English speakers wouldn't use suspect instead - that would mean the exact opposite! Other commenters said much the same lower down the comment thread.

Some of those commenters also noted that doubt used to mean roughly what suspect means. It's sense 6d in the OED, marked as archaic, and from the examples there, you can see how the semantic shift could have happened. Just add it to the long list of English verbs whose meaning has completely reversed over time.

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