live by the dictionary or submit!

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sun Feb 29 01:26:56 UTC 2004

a small chapter in the annals of verbal magic...

letter in today's (2/28/04) Palo Alto Daily News, arguing that "there
are sound reasons to reject Regional Measure 2, which would hike most
Bay bridge tolls to $3 to fund better roads and transit".

reason #1 is: "First, it's not regional."  One paragraph down this is

   "The seven Bay counties voting on Regional Measure 2 are not a
region.  Check your dictionary.  Check the Bay's growing killer
commute.  It's now from 20 counties and counting..."

there are two parts to the writer's complaint.  one is not linguistic:
he wants public transportation benefits to cover the whole 20-county
region, not merely the 9-county "metropolitan area" (San Francisco, San
Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Marin, Napa, Alameda, Contra Costa,
Solano; please don't complain to *me* about 7 vs. 9 [oh hell, Santa
Cruz and Napa are out of it, because they don't have  any of the
relevant bridges]).  well, i want a staff of intelligent,
linguistically trained, sexy, devoted houseboys, but i really don't
think that's going to happen.  on the other hand, this is a discussable
question: whether the costs and benefits should cover 5, 7, 9, 15, or
20 counties (all the way south to San Luis Obispo!).

the linguistic part has to do with what constitutes a *region*.  there
is a technical distinction between a (metropolitan) area, as defined by
the u.s. census, and a region, as in the "regions of the u.s." (new
england, middle atlantic, etc.), and this distinction is reflected (in
very diluted fashion) in some dictionaries.  the AHD4, for example,
gives "area" as a synonym of "region", but says that "regional" refers
to a "*large* geographical region" (emphasis mine).

still, it's incredibly silly to be telling your neighbors to go look at
dictionary definitions to decide whether they'll vote for a ballot
measure  -- even if the dictionaries do validate the technical
distinction in question, however delicately.  this is a kind of verbal

surely someone is collecting cases where people said that some
substantive question could be decided just by looking things up in "the

arnold (zwicky at, don't call me shirley

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