Sunday, September 28, 2008

Frame Semantics in Oz

(image from HBO's Oz website)

Continuing my obsession with Netflixing cable TV shows, I've begun watching one of cable TV's first big successful original shows, Oz. I just finished the second of six seasons. Each episode is book-ended by a narrator and in episode 6 he makes a clever linguistic observation that is essentially a frame-semantics argument:

Narrator: "You made your bed, now lie in it." Anybody wanna tell me what the fuck that means? You're gonna go to the trouble of making up your bed, smoothing out the sheets, fluffing up the pillows, just to ruin it all by lying down. The phrase should be, "You laid in your bed, now make it." Point being, you got to be responsible for your actions. Responsible. (season 2, episode 6: strange bedfellows).

I think he's right. The semantic meaning of this saying doesn't quite match the frame it's evoking. The meaning should be something like you made certain choices which caused a given situation and now you must accept responsibility for the results of your choices. I have to work too hard to imagine how a situation where lying in a bed is a natural consequence of the decision to make it. I have to imagine a slightly different sense of making a bed. I have to imagine choices being made (like maybe the type of pillows, blankets, how big it is, etc). But that is not the normal sense of making a bed in contemporary American English. What choices does one make when making a bed? None, right? Has this meaning changed?

However, if one chooses to lie in a bed, one chooses to cause it be messed up. This seems to be closer to the meaning of the saying.

3 comments:

Peter Turney said...

There's a saying that "a bird never fouls its own nest". Maybe the confusion is a kind of conceptual blend with this saying. That is, the correct saying should be, "you fouled your bed, now lie in it".

Anonymous said...

"Making a bed" used to involve a lot more than just smoothing down a couple of sheets.

Think of collecting a bundle of the right sort of soft grasses (bed-straws)or ferns, filling a mattress evenly, plumping a pillow with feathers if you had any, airing the bedding to get rid of bugs, getting hold of the right size and quantity of blankets. If you didn't do it properly, you'd suffer. Read some travellers' writings from the C19 or earlier for an idea of how it was.

Moses

Chris said...

These are both plausible analyses. I wouldn't be surprised if the answer is a combination. The saying may have begun, as Moses suggests, referring to more-or-less building a bed or arranging bedding for travelers (Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims come to mind). But at some point, that became archaic and English speakers had to reanalyze the semantics and came up with something closer to the bird fouling the nest reading.

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