Regular readers of this blog may remember mentions of British ‘if you like’ by comparison with American ‘if you will’ as phrases used by speakers to warn addressees about (or implicitly apologize for the use of) a proximate figurative expression, as if figuration in speech were somehow a transgression of linguistic protocol. (In that connection, readers are directed to the PDF available on this blog, entitled “Wimp English,” which analyzes the use of “if you will” in American English; and is, curiously, the most oft-downloaded item on the list of PDFs [according to Webalizer].
The use of these phrases in the two varieties of contemporary English speech is not uniform. Whereas ‘if you will’ has declined on this side of the Atlantic, the incidence of ‘if you like’ across the pond is more frequent than ever (judging by BBC World Service broadcasts). One can only conclude that the British, among their other linguistic mannerisms, are more sensitive than Americans to the possibility of saying anything that their interlocutors might deem non-U or inappropriately idiosyncratic.
Meaning is a perennial problem in the philosophy of mind but seems to pose no problem for language users and linguists alike. The latter locate it as residing ‘in the head’ of speakers, and language seems to facilitate this view. However, on closer inspection, and when we compare how different languages use words to mean the same thing (synonymy), we become convinced that meaning is all around us, and words in different languages have different ways of carving out a specific meaning from the semantic universe that surrounds us in the world, differing from the physical environment only by mode of embodiment.
Y-H-B was reminded of these considerations when hearing the English word tie on the radio used to designate a match or contest where there is no winner and an equal score and translating it mentally into its Russian equivalent ничья (nich’ya). The Oxford English Dictionary Online gives as the primary meaning ‘that with which anything is tied; a cord, band, or the like, used for fastening something; a knot, noose, or ligature; a natural formation of this kind, a ligament’. The notion of being inextricably bound to each other is then implemented figuratively to give the meaning ‘equality between two or more competitors or the sides in a match or contest; a match in which this occurs, a drawn match; a dead heat’.
The Russian word ничья by contrast utilizes a different concept, literally that of ‘belonging to no one’, i. e., ‘[victory] belongs to no one’. Both the English and the Russian words denote exactly the same thing but do so in different modes of figuration. The semantic web in which the words are embedded is the same, but the construal in the two languages gives linguistic expression to that embeddedness in two entirely different ways that end up meaning the same thing nonetheless.
With the rise of the internet and mass communications has come the establishment of (American) English as the world’s lingua franca. This development has necessarily been accompanied by imperfect learning, which means that grammatical normativity has suffered, perhaps nowhere more noticeably than in the matter of verbal government, specifically the use of the correct postposition after verbs.
For instance, even native speakers of American English are now constantly heard confusing the phrases “ask (a question) of” with “put (a question) to,” substituting the postposition to for of after ask. The media universe is rife with such mistakes, which linguists are prone to identify with analogy as a cause. One can see, of course, why to seems more “natural,” given its use in other constructions involving directionality and the indirect objects of certain verbs, but correct usage is not just an arbitrary or slavish adherence to traditional rules of grammar but the bedrock of the felicitous expression of thought. Its raison d’être has a cognitive dimension that goes beyond language as a cultural phenomenon.
A quite common idiomatic expression in contemporary American speech is “the 600-/800-/900-/1,000-pound gorilla in the room,” which is used to mean “a very large issue that everyone is acutely aware of, but nobody wants to talk about. Perhaps a sore spot, perhaps politically incorrect, or perhaps a political hot potato, it’s something that no one wants to touch with a ten foot pole” (as defined by the Urban Dictionary). Interestingly enough, the expression started life with the word elephant instead of gorilla , i. e. “(pink) elephant in the room.” Because of its gigantism an elephant’s weight is much harder to specify than that of a gorilla, so the change of animal can be explained by the desire of the speaker to indicate just how large the undiscussed but relevant issue actually is in context.
Speaking of weight, although the variability of the beast’s poundage in the contemporary version may have something to do with the figurative force the user wishes to impart to the hidden but significant considerations at stake in discourse, this consideration is less likely than that of the sheer bulk of the animal. Ultimately, a gorilla in the public imagination looms large––especially in a room!––regardless of avoirdupois, hence the instability of its linguistic designation.