A recent episode of The Allusionist about the differences between American and British English opened with this comment by Helen Zaltzman:
We can’t even agree on whether pants are the garments you wear under or over your pants!
I love this so much. I’ve heard sentences before with the trick of a single word needing to be assigned more than one meaning—the classic example being “He lost his coat and his temper”—but somehow this sentence combines two smaller sentences, each of which requires you to read “pants” with both meanings, yet in opposite ways:
Pants (underwear) are the garments you wear under your pants (trousers)!
Pants (trousers) are the garments you wear over your pants (underwear)!
The key features of “pants” that make this work are:
- “Pants” has two different meanings, each of which is the default for some people and not for others.
- Those two meanings are strongly related: the joke wouldn’t work so well if we tried to make it about jumpers (type of dress? type of knitwear?) or boots (car storage location? heavy-duty footware?).
And so the hunt begins for more examples of words along these lines. My first thought was “dinner,” which can roughly mean either “the last meal of the day” or “the main meal of the day” (in which case the last meal of the day is “supper”). So I tried:
- “Not everyone eats dinner at dinnertime!”
But that doesn’t have the buzzy double-contradiction of the original. Clara suggested “computer,” which usually means the electronic device but used to mean a person who computes things; here’s what I came up with for that:
- “A computer used to be the person who used, not the device used by, a computer.”
Better, but the alternate usage is so outdated it’s hard to read the sentence keeping both meanings in mind. (And people computers didn’t really overlap with electronic computers for long, anyway.) Here’s my latest attempt:
- “Champagne is both the sparkling white wine made in, and the region where they make, Champagne!”
There we go. “Champagne” has two related meanings, each of which is the default for a different group of people (wine connoisseurs, and everyone else), so reading the sentence requires you to wear both wear both hats at once but switching them halfway through.
How about you? Can you think of a word that two different groups of people use differently but in related ways? Bonus points if you can contradictorily combine its meanings in a single unintelligible sentence!