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.


  1. I love detective stuff....esp Agatha Christie

  2. Great post. Love the Wire.
    The push and pull between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics is always fascinating. There are uses which no-one will accept: I can’t use the word “cat” to refer to a dog if I want to avoid confusion or damage to my social prestige. Yet a dictionary is out of date as soon as it is published, even if it were a perfect record of “standard” use originally. You’ve given a good example of how dictionaries aren’t perfect.
    What about cases such as the use of “less” instead of “fewer”? Is this wrong? Should we accept it?
    I came to this via Twitter: you probably already know but you should be a lexicographer. You have a great surname for it!

  3. Yeah I love The Wire too. The thing is your "evacuate" example is of course correct, but "corporate management speak" has destroyed the original meanings of many words, so it's no wonder some people get confused.

    Take the word "deliver". You can deliver a parcel or a letter. Or a card for your grandmother's birthday. But "Our team is committed to delivering this project on time" is just nonsense. IMHO :-)

  4. It's only nonsense if you know their team doesn't mean it. ;-)

    This is what happens when you let your language lose its inflections and go all word-order on you. It's not chaos, but it is different. And we're about ... what, 800 years? ... too late to stop it.

  5. The dumbing down of English continues - in the UK some street signs are having apostrophes removed. So "St John's Road" has become "St Johns Road". All because no-one thought to correct the "idiot's" who automatically think plural "word's" merit an apostrophe. Sigh.

  6. are you saying that "evacuate A from B" is a dumber, or less effective or otherwise impressive use of the word "evacuate"?

    is all language change a dumbing-down?

    i suspect there are several reasons for the elimination of apostrophes from street signs and place names. perhaps confusion plays a role. and uniformity and the removal of factual implications too i would guess. is it really a road belonging to St John? And is the absence of a '.' from abbreviated 'St' equally a dumber form of the punctuated American form 'St.'?

    I say no. that would be a ridiculous claim about the significance of a little mark on the page. A mark that is used differently by different writing systems in various contexts. variation doesn't always mean much. or at least, it doesn't always mean what we're afraid it means.

    and since place names and street signs aren't semantically loaded sentences, nor do they make full semantic claims, i don't believe the presence or absence of punctuation marks is a very good indicator of broader linguistic competence or performance.

    here's a good post (by the reliably helpful Stan Carey) on the issue.

  7. Seems like most of the people who are born in this generation do not know the real importance of language. I agree that there are new discoveries about language but do not forget its real essence.

    1. I apologize for the delay in publishing your comment, Chris. I was away from my account for a while.

      I'm not sure I completely understand your point. Are you saying that the constant and inevitable changes in specific meanings necessarily change the "real essence" of language?


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