Sunday, April 10, 2016

An open-pattern ambiguity

Some words are ambiguous in unique, idiosyncratic ways:  e.g. pen (‘writing-implement’; ‘corral’; ‘female swan’; ‘penitentiary’);  these do not generalize in any sense.   Others, in ways more systematic, though still contingently gerrymandered over the lexicon as a whole: as, the actio/actum distinction of many verbal nouns, which has counterparts in many languages.

An ambiguity of the latter sort  I noticed just the other day.  Schematically,

& <the [Surname] of … [area of activity]>

I was reading (somewhat drowsily, candle guttering on the nightstand) a history of the early twentieth century,  and encountered the phrase

“the Nelson of the Russo-Japanese War”

My semi-befuddled brain (well prepped for noctural Lethe  by abundance of brandy, but less well fit for analysis) first apprehended this as referring to:  a certain Commodore or Admiral, active in the R-J war, and surnamed Nelson (by Christian name  a Clive, or a Bartholemew, as the case might be), but not to be confused with his more celebrated predecessor and namesake, Horatio Nelson. 
But the reference was to:  Admiral Togo.


I noticed that  while wearing my linguistic cap;  but upon re-reading, it stands revealed as but an instance of, or at least closely related to, the general topic of possible-world counterparts, and the sort of conundrums of counterfactuals discussed, for example, by Nelson Goodman in Fact, Fiction, and Forecast.  As such, a philosopher will greet it with a nod of recognition, or perhaps a yawn.  But for the benefit of such of my readers who may have spent too few hours reading analytic philosophy, and too many playing “Angry Birds”, we offer it anyway, in all humility.

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