It Makes Me Smart

A fine, resounding ambiguity!  A clanger of an ambiguity!  I think it’s better even than my previous favorite, “The Thirteenth Greatest of Centuries.”

A parting of roads

I’d pick it as title for a treatise on ambiguity.  There has been at least one book on this subject, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), by the eminent literary critic William Empson, which was about metaphor, simile, and other and subtler tropes used by writers.

My collection of ambiguities now runs to over 300, somewhat analysed and classified into types, but they’re really collected for their linguistic curiosity and entertainment value, rather than for Empson’s profound literary reasons.  Many, for example, can be explained by mistakes in phrase structure:

Unintended:  Thanks for this post, which illustrates {the point I was making incredibly well}.
Intended:  Thanks for this post, which illustrates {incredibly well} {the point I was making}.

Or can be explained by showing the phrase structure but are harder to repair:

{Dancing in the streets after gay sex} is declared legal in India
Dancing in the streets {after gay sex is declared legal in India}

Others are caused by individual words that have more than one use, or by punctuation, or by intonation or stress; others are examples of what I call pre-ambiguity – a sentence looks as if it is going to have one (usually ridiculous) meaning, the intended meaning doesn’t becomes apparent until you read on; others have precisely opposite meanings, or demonstrate how ambiguities would be almost impossible in Esperanto.  However, enough of my 300 specimens, which I haven’t taken time to search for other types and egregious examples.  The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries is an interesting old book making the surprising case that the 1200s were better in medicine, prosperity, education, and much else than any other century up to the nineteenth.  (I think the author forgot the persecution of the Albigensians.)  The title is ambiguous only on the spine of the book, where the comma had to be omitted.  That’s probably what caused my eye to light on it in some book sale.

“It makes me smart” was Donald Trump’s reply, in the September 25 presidential debate, to Hillary Clinton when she reminded him that he had large unpaid debts, had refused to pay employees for work done, had for many years avoided paying taxes, and wouldn’t release his tax records.

Fleetingly I thought he meant “All that causes me to feel pain, embarrassment, remorse.”  Smart as verb, as when you smart from an insult or a nettle sting.  But the word used in this way has become less common and is perhaps outside Trump’s vocabulary.

Intended, presumably: “It goes to show that I am clever.”  Smart as adjective; slang until fairly recently, now in America widely used to mean shrewd, street-wise, cunning, good at cheating.


6 thoughts on “It Makes Me Smart”

  1. I was defending my driving style one time and said, “Don’t worry. I’m very careful when driving dangerously.”

    It made sense to me when I said it but the ambiguity soon became obvious.

  2. Don’t you just love English?…… I’ve always enjoyed using auto-antonyms – words spelled the same but have opposite meanings. Words such as dust (clean or spread a fine powder), fast (hold fast or go fast), resign (did the coach quit or agree to a few more years?), skin (remove or film over)…..
    Here are a couple of links:
    Also, homophones that mean the opposite such as raze and raise.

  3. Thanks for a fun post! And yes, Esperanto is less prone than English to ambiguity. E.g. it does mark the accusative case, and there are fewer words with lots of rather different meanings.

    But as a fluent speaker, my experience is that ambiguities are relatively common, popular and amusing in Esperanto also. The translation of your first sentence remains ambiguous in Esperanto:

    Dankon pro ĉi tiu mesaĝo, kiu montras la punkton kiun mi faris ege bone.

    Though it might be more commonly said with a word order that is more clear:

    Dankon pro ĉi tiu mesaĝo, kiu ege bone montras la punkton kiun mi faris.

    (Happy note: you can translate that Esperanto sentence pretty well via Google Translate, e.g. as I did here:

    Besides those sorts of multiple ways to parse phrase structure, which I suspect is common across lots of languages, one of my favorites in spoken Esperanto is this pair of sentences, which sound alike:

    “Ĉu vi bonege dormis? (did you have a wonderful sleep?) vs
    “Ĉu vi bone gedormis?” (Did your sleeping-together-with-someone go well?)

    That confusion, and that general idea of changing which word some letters are attached to, is commonly used in jokes.

    The comments at this page list several ways in which Esperanto can be just as confusing as English:

    1. John, that’s ambiguous! (Unless I’m dumb; always a possible explanation when one fails to understand something.) Do you mean–
      –One of the ambiguities I pilloried is yours? (Not so.)
      –Trump is touché?
      –You’re a Trump supporter and therefore feel touché?
      You don’t have to answer: ambiguities can rest in peace, wrapped in their gauzy garments of mystery. And the topic is not political; a search of the debate transcript may well find a Democratic ambiguity.

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