four-footed males, females, and children

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Dec 9 01:40:51 UTC 2008

At 8:01 PM -0500 12/8/08, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>Will Shortz's "Animal Tracks" puzzle in the NYTimes Sunday, Nov. 30,
>asked how many names of male, female, and young four-footed animals
>could be traced in the given five-by-five letter grid.  I think his
>solution (yesterday, Dec. 7) is unfair.
>Shortz allowed "cow", presumably because one definition is
>gender-specific (the female bovine) and because there are names for
>male bovines.  He explicitly disallowed "dog" (which can be traced in
>the grid), presumably because the definition of dog is not gender-specific.
>But one definition of "cow" is not gender-specific: "a domestic
>bovine animal, whether a steer, bull, cow, or calf", so thereby it
>should be excluded.  And one definition of "dog" is gender-specific:
>"the male of a canine", so thereby it should be permitted.
Shortz could be seen as making an (implicit) empirical claim about
the *primar* sense of each lexical item, while (implicitly) allowing
that both are indeed polysemous.  In that sense, I'd say it's a
defensible claim: the primary sense (statistically and
psychologically) of "dog", as reflected in most if not all
dictionaries, is non-gender-specific.  Lassie would normally (at
least by non-dog-breeders) be called an intelligent (friendly,
attractive,...) dog, not an intelligent (friendly, attractive,...)
bitch (ignoring the fact that the actors who have played her were in
fact non-bitch doggies), and if I said I gave my kids a dog for
Christmas, you wouldn't be on safe ground to infer it was a male one.
For me, the 'male canis familiaris' sense only arises (outside of
lexical semantics discussions) when there's a direct opposition with
'bitch'. The "cow" case is trickier, but arguably the primary sense
here is the one opposed to "bull", with gender (or sex) built in.  As
Lyons put it (I may be paraphrasing here), "a bitch is a female dog"
is a straightforward identification claim or definition, while "a
bull is a male cow" is a metalinguistic claim (i.e. bulls are the
male counterparts of cows).  That being said, when I grew up in NYC,
"cow" was a general non-gender-specific term for bovines.  But what
did *we* did know from cows?


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