Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Evacuate": the premises

An hourlong wait for the answer to a simple question gets tiresome. So I'm not usually a fan of detective procedurals on TV. I suppose that's also why some people are so uncomfortable with ambiguous syntax, polysemous words, and language change more generally. Understanding is hard!

Well, I do like one cop show a lot: The Wire. It's intricate, precise, and consistent. Every character on the show is fallible. Every soul is broken. By addiction, betrayal, torture, improper English usage, murder…

I started watching three months ago and now I'm up to the first episode of season 5. One scene brought back memories of a conversation that took place several years ago in the language blog neighborhood. Here's the bit.

Gus Haynes sits at his desk reading and typing. He calls out

"Ms Gutierrez. Gutierrez! Get your ass over here."


"You say that 120 people were evacuated."

"Yeah. They were."

"You can't evacuate people. I mean you can if you want. But that's not what you want to say here."
Another man—the fat, bald, bearded kind—offers his analysis.

"A building could be evacuated. To evacuate a person is to give that person an enema. The details, Miss Gutierrez. At The Baltimore Sun, god still resides in the details."

As she walks away, put in her place, the fat bald guy (Jay Spry) cries out with the anguish of all obsolete convictions. "What are we gonna do with these children today?"

Not to worry. His attempt to spread uninvestigated reassurance finds a home in Alma Gutierrez's eager little soul. She has picked up her Webster's New World desk dictionary, and the camera shows her staring as she reads it. "He's right" she says. "You don't evacuate people."

We have to remember that these are fictional characters. And altho The Wire is riddled with characters based on real-life Baltimorianders, we can rest assured that neither of these superstitious editors is our friend, the reasonable John McIntyre.

But what lesson can we learn here? You need soft eyes. Investigate. Know your sources. Put facts together. Neglecting or, more egregiously, refusing to do all that is too often what leads to peeves, complaints, feigned confusion, and the uninvestigated reassurance that stopped Ms Gutierrez from a fuller understanding of the word evacuate.

It also trips up many of our fellow web-trotters. I did a little searching to find conversations about this issue, and I came across a story about a bomb threat in Palo Alto. Three commenters—employee, darwin, and sketch—provide the action.

Click to enlarge so that you can read the tiny words.

Notice that sketch's attempt to defend employee's use of evacuate doesn't actually defend the distinction precisely. The entry merely supports the sense of evacuate as "leave empty". In other words, to evacuate a building is to remove people from the building. Darwin's snippy response is on point if we accept that entry as the only admissible evidence in our investigation of the word's meaning.

This is similar to what Gutierrez does after Spry limits the meaning of the word for her. This is also part of what I did when I saw that she was shown consulting Webster's New World. I went and got out my own copy of that dictionary. Not to see what I should believe, but to see what the dictionary actually says. And you know what? It's possible to read that as the only meaning of evacuate that my copy of WNW gives.

For the sake of this argument, let's say that we're trusting the dictionary to tell us which meanings are in common enough usage to be understood and relevant. Nothing in the entry clearly indicates that the object of evacuate can be the people (or objects) that are removed. Altho I would say that sense 3.a. can be read this way, with the evacuees as the objects of evacuate, it's a tricky transitive structure. If someone is just looking to prove, rather than learn, they could hang on to their belief and say that the implied object is "place or area" not "inhabitants". I say it's both. I say the parentheses indicate two different possible objects of the transitive verb. I'm also guessing that Gutierrez' Compact Office Dictionary has a whole lot of nothing where mine has something. So the debate continues, doesn't it?

Such assurance in a limited resource is what led darwin to respond to sketch's invocation of the dictionary entry so approvingly. "I'm glad you looked it up," he says. Clearly the dictionary is given the final word as he hears it. Gutierrez used it to check Spry's claim. Sketch used it (shakily) to debunk darwin's. And darwin is glad to see him hoist by their mutual petard.

So, case closed? No. Not even if we decide we're going to end our search with a look at just one dictionary. We have to admit that altho dictionaries try to be complete, they're not always. That's why most dictionaries have more than one edition: sometimes because of errors, but really because of changes in language and additions to our understanding. So in almost all cases, if you're trying to find out about a word, use more than one dictionary.

But here's the fun part: looking around. We don't have to just look at the specific entry for a word to know what a dictionary thinks of that word. Every once in a while, a dictionary entry is a little weak on the witness stand. In this case, look less than a centimeter down the page at the next entry, for evacuation (sense 2) and the entry right after that for evacuee.

See? The dictionary knows how to talk just like people do. If your god resides in the details, he resides in all of them.