In June 2001, the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission released for sale a new “scratch-and-play” lottery game card named “Caesars [sic] Palace®” (played by scratching the surface of each card at designated spots to reveal hidden numbers or images). It offered a grand prize of $1,000,000 to players whose game cards contained certain spots that matched. Very soon, numerous purchasers began to claim million-dollar prizes; most of these demands-for-payment were denied by the Commission on the grounds that the claims were based upon a misreading of the game-card instructions. The claimants appealed, but their appeals were denied by a special hearing board appointed by the Commission. Further appeal to state courts in Massachusetts can by law be based only on procedural grounds, not the facts of the case. This paper analyzes the semantic, pragmatic, and semiotic bases for the claimants’ and Commission’s conflicting interpretations of the instructions—a somewhat new application of linguistics to the field of language and law. The essay also raises theoretical questions concerning the relationship between linguistics and semiotic theory in the context of real- world data.
revision of a paper presented at the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics, 19 April 2002
Revision of a paper read at the Tenth International Conference on Methods in Dialectology, St. John's Newfoundland, Aug. 1999
On April 17, 1991, a twelve-year-old junior-high student in Norfolk, Virginia, was suspended from school for refusing to desist from wearing a tee shirt on the front of which was printed in very large letters, DRUGS SUCK! School officials argued that the inscription was "inappropriate for school attire" because it is "vulgar," "derives from a sexual connotation of oral-genital contact," and hence is potentially disruptive to the maintenance of order in school. The child’s parents sued, insisting that the shirt contained a valuable message of critical importance and that the vernacular language was not "vulgar" but simply contemporary slang which conveyed the message in a powerful fashion to an otherwise quite impervious audience. The case presents a complex of problems in semiotics, pragmatics, semantics, and historical linguistics. Most speakers of American English today know that "X Sucks!" has a primary colloquial meaning "X is bad." However, many speakers also attach secondary meanings and even putative etymologies to the slang phrase–usually connected to fellatio–which some of them may find deeply offensive; yet (unlike the Norfolk school officials) they have no difficulty accepting the phrase and even using it themselves. The paper demonstrates (a). that the etymological connection between "X Sucks!" and fellatio is largely a folk etymology; and (b). that contemporary connotations of fellatio for "X Sucks!" are foregrounded only when the specific issue of putative etymology is raised, thus allowing speakers to accept a phrase that they might otherwise find inappropriate.
Revision of a paper read at the meeting of the American Dialect Society, Jan. 6, 2000