Ever-present metonymy?

Ken writes:

I think natural language semantics is a bit of a fool’s errand, at least as it is conceived and practiced throughout most of the world’s linguistics and philosophy departments. One encounters a myriad of little proofs of this daily if one keeps one’s eyes open.

Behold this bottle of squeezy pure clear honey.

I’m pretty certain that by ‘squeezy honey’ the manufacturer intends ‘honey in a squeezy bottle’. I am reasonably certain that by ‘pure honey’ and ‘clear honey’ they do not mean ‘honey in a pure bottle’ and ‘honey in a clear bottle’ respectively, but honey that is pure and clear. They don’t mean colourless by ‘clear’ but simply not turbid or cloudy.

No one would have any difficulty understanding the phrase ‘squeezy pure clear honey’ appearing as it does, in context, on the label of the bottle to mean pure clear honey in a squeezy bottle. Everything is just as it says on the tin. But isn’t it interesting how the adjectives seem to modify the noun ever so slightly differently? It isn’t the honey that is squeezy but the bottle of honey although it is the honey which is pure and clear.

It isn’t true in general that ‘squeezy X’ means ‘X in a squeezy bottle’, because that doesn’t work for X = ‘bottle’ (or ‘ball’ or ‘cushion’ or ‘toy’ or various other things).

We seem here to be dealing with a case where the precise meaning of ‘squeezy pure clear honey’ is fixed by context in which it is used. The mere fact that it is written on the label guides our interpretation. If we had encountered the phrase out of context, it might not have made any sense to us. This sort of thing, I think, makes it hard to credit the prevailing theories of meaning current in philosophy and linguistics departments that seek to associate general and context independent rules with linguistic expressions.

16 thoughts on “Ever-present metonymy?

  1. I love the English language.

    Although, for some reason, I don’t like it when verbs get turned into nouns. Lately people talk about “asks” and such, and I’m thinking “what’s wrong with ‘request’?”

  2. Katimum

    Nice to see the Squeezy Frank in the picture even if he was not very clear. I leave you to judge his purity. Was he trying to be a bee?

  3. Katimum

    It seems to me that a lot of ‘odd’ phraseology is because the English language accepts elisions so ‘bottle of’ is understood as coming between squeezy and pure. I always got semantics muddled up with ceramics anyway.

  4. I don’t think ‘squeezy honey’ means ‘honey in a squeezy bottle’. I think it means ‘honey that is apt to be squeezed’ (a property that, admittedly, it enjoys in virtue of the way it has been bottled). For evidence of this suppose that, having finished your honey, you then filled the bottle with ball bearings. The result could not be described as ‘squeezy ball bearings’.

    1. kenanddot

      Hmm. If by being ‘apt to be squeezed’ you mean ‘can be squeezed in a suitable receptacle’, then that is a property some honey has even when it’s not in a suitable receptacle. Runny honey in a glass jar would be “squeezy” because you would be able to squeeze it if it were in a suitable bottle. But people wouldn’t call honey in a glass jar squeezy.
      So what does ‘apt to be squeezed’ mean if not ‘can be squeezed when in a suitable receptacle’?

  5. Laura

    My comment might reveal all the shortcomings of the Standard American Usage version of English (SAU) I was taught in school, but I don’t think I would call anything ‘squeezy’. If by ‘squeezy’ I should understand that something is ‘squeezable’, it is the bottle. So isn’t it the purity we are talking about? The kind of honey that is apt to be dispensed by squeezing the bottle ought to be pure and not still in the comb or crystallized. Does it make any sense to think of the honey as squeezably pure? If so, then ‘squeezy’ could be an adverb telling us how pure the honey is. But then I suppose ‘clear’ is just unnecessary.

    1. kenanddot

      I think you might be criticising the English of the honey label. I think that squeeziness applies to bottles much more obviously than the honey inside the bottle. I think that supports the idea that it is the context of the bottle label that guides our interpretation and finds a suitable interpretation where this isn’t an obvious one (honey in a squeezy bottle is an appropriate reference for ‘squeezy honey’ but I don’t see another).

  6. I’m with you, on the point about semantics being, for the most part, a funny old business.

    But here’s what I had in mind: Honey in a glass jar (whatever its purity) isn’t apt to be squeezed, and so, in my book, it isn’t squeezy honey, because: (1) the jar it is in resists one’s squeezing, and (2) if one attempted to squeeze it directly, one would get sticky hands. And so, by ‘apt to be squeezed’, I don’t mean ‘can be squeezed if in a suitable receptacle’.

    What I mean is ‘affords squeezing’. That’s an extrinsic property of the honey for sure — one that it owes to it’s receptacle — but that’s just metaphysics, not semantics. The semantic point is that it is of the honey that squeeziness is being predicated. And if that’s right, then I don’t think there’s any need to take the case to involve metonymy.

    1. kenanddot

      (this is the third time I’ve written this reply because for some reason I’ve been having problems posting to the site. My reply gets shorter every time, so apologies in advance if it’s a bit cryptic…)

      I see what you’re doing Chris. You’re trying to find a property the honey has when it’s in the squeezy bottle that we could then say is predicated of the honey (just as ‘pure’ and ‘clear’ are predicated of the honey) in the phrase ‘squeezy pure clear honey’.

      But I think the new suggestion is no better than the earlier one. Both ‘apt to be squeezed’ and ‘affords squeezing’ are dispositional properties, meaning that they only manifest if certain conditions obtain, but are present even if they’re not manifested. The glass is fragile, because it will break if it is dropped, but it is fragile even if it’s not dropped. So runny honey in a glass jar affords squeezing if it’s in a squeezy bottle, but of course it’s not. Affords squeezing just means you can potentially squeeze it.

      So ‘squeezy honey’ can’t mean ‘honey that affords squeezing’ because only honey in a squeezy bottle is ‘squeezy honey’, but any honey that you could squeeze in a suitable container affords squeezing including honey in a glass jar.

  7. Murray

    I am not sure if this is the same interpretation as Chris’s, but I thought of it before seeing his post so I will say it my way. “Squeezy honey” means “Honey presented in such a way as to render it capable of being squeezed”. We also speak of “free-flowing salt” where the adjective applies not principally to the salt itself but to the salt as presented .

    1. kenanddot

      Hmm that’s a nice example. Isn’t it the form the salt takes that matters? Certain size crystals perhaps? I think that’s different from what sort of packet it comes in. I think that’s more analogous to runny honey. Runny honey is squeezy honey only in the right sort of bottle.

  8. Murray

    The point of “free-flowing salt” is that it flows freely. This may be achieved by addition of an ingredient to the salt, the design of the container, or both. After you sprinkle free-flowing salt on your dinner it is no longer free flowing.

    1. kenanddot

      Hmm. I think I’ve lost track of how this relates to the original point about semantics. I’ll have to think about it a bit more.

  9. Great blog.

    Enjoyed the linguistic post above. I have a page on my site very roughly related to language: http://photopol.com/language/language.html

    Thanks for your guess on the Where is it 2? item on my blog.

    I got the idea of putting up this sort of stuff from an earlier ongoing item on Archiseek, but that one was very difficult if you hadn’t been walking the streets of Dublin with micro- and telescope for half a century.

    That very good blog Pue’s Occurrences aslo did a guess-it recently. It is always good fun and never fails to provoke.



    1. ken

      I really enjoyed reading your linguistic recollections Pól, especially the anecdote about the peculiarities of Irish English. I actually think the Irish use of ‘will’ instead of ‘shall’ is an improvement, because will has vestigial connotations of intention and volition that are appropriate for signalling a suggestion. ‘Will we have a cup of tea?’ just works, say I. We used to live in Ballybrack too.

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