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Fourteen Types of Ambiguity William Koon My wife is not a southerner. She speaks English, and I could add that she has a couple of degrees in linguistics. Nonetheless, since she has moved South, I have spent much of my time as translator, explaining the region's strangely idiomatic and deflective language. We have not had too much trouble with the idioms. She knows now that "mash the doorbell" does not mean destroy the doorbell. And she understands the same thing about "cracking the window," that we mean "open the window a little" and not any mayhem. The verb "fixin"' was a little more trouble. She understood that it means "to prepare" as much as it means "to repair." But her logic kept her from accepting some of the variations on that verb. She believed that when I say, "I am fixin' to go to town," that I am about to put on my socks and shoes and head for the door. She did not believe that, when I am at the dinner table and say, "I am fixin' to go wash the dishes," I indicate my hope that someone else at the table will be polite enough to volunteer and beat me to the sink. In the former case, "fixin"' means that I am actually going to do something; in the latter, it means that I sure hope I won't have to do anything. Spousal amusement. Much of my translation has me working between my wife and my mother, the latter a deeply dyed southerner. After much struggle, my mother accepted my wife's desire to use her own name. She observes my wife's wish not to be called "Mrs. Koon" in every instance except when she writes us her frequent, chatty letters—all of them addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Bill Koon. My wife refuses my explanation that my mother does not want the postman to think that we are living together in sin. A more complicated example: On a recent birthday, my mother gave me a smoke detector. With it was a nice card. Under the Hallmark greeting was her handwritten note: "I hope you will install this in such a way that you can take it with you the next time you move. Love, Mother." I do not have the space here to explore all fourteen levels of this message. The truth is that I am still trying to work it out myself. But I will say that my history and my mother's attitude toward it are writ large in that gift and its little note. 474Southern Cultures First, obviously, is her concern for our safety, which is a small reminder that we live pretty carelessly, at least by her standards. Another reference is to my employment record. Since I do not go to work often, my mother calculates that I probably will die in bed. This is a small reminder that my father worked his forty hours for forty years in one print shop, that my older brother has been just as steady—long days, five days a week for a good thirty years. That I teach a few hours a week and keep office hours for an additional hour or two have marred the family work ethic the way spray paint spoils subway cars. I cannot tell you how happy she would be if my teaching load were increased to forty hours a week. My chances of dying in bed become even greater in her mind because she suspects I am smoking cigarettes there. My mother fears that I will die by mattress fire touched off by a cigarette. The likelihood of such is increased because, in her mind, I drink too much. She suspects that I will die drunk in a mattress fire touched off by a cigarette. She fears just a little less that the local paper will record the details. She knows that "mattress fire" in an obituary means cigarettes, alcohol , and worthlessness. She knows that the only worse thing in an obituary is "hit by a train," which means one died drunk since most of us can hear a train when we are sober. That she does...


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