first ever!

Victor aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 20 01:28:10 UTC 2009

I think, we can agree on one thing--you describe the *intent* of the

Now, compare two statements:

    Neil Armstrong took first ever steps on the moon.
    Buzz Aldrin took first ever steps on the moon.

Following your deconstruction, both of these statements are not only
equally permissible, but both would be universally understood to be
accurate. Nonetheless, I suspect, most people would see one statement as
accurate (except those who believe that moon landing has been an
elaborate hoax) and the other as nonsense.

At first, I thought the problem might be "Japanese". But reading the
modified sentence has the same effect on me.

        Edmonton lab gets first ever Microscope

In fact, there would have been nothing wrong at all had the word "ever"
been dropped.

        Edmonton lab gets first Japanese Microscope

In this case, it is far more likely that the header would have meant
that it's the first microscope for the lab (or, perhaps, for Canada),
although the meaning might be clearer with "First Japanese Microscopes
Arrive at Edmonton Lab". Because the intended meaning of the latter is
clearer, inserting "ever" after "first" would not break it.

This is quite different from deliberate exaggeration, as in,

    This is the best cheesecake ever!

Although the statement looks like this is the declaration of absolute
primacy of the particular cheesecake, the actual meaning is closer to
"This is the best cheesecake I ever had." Similarly, it is quite common
to hear, "This is the best present ever!" or "This is the best day
ever!". The "ever" in each of these cases does not signify a temporal
component, but, rather, a personal one, despite the emphatic "the".

But if I am showing off a computer to friends and say, "This is first
computer ever!", I am likely to get a few puzzling glances unless I
explain, "I mean, this is the first computer *I* ever had." The bottom
line is that intent is irrelevant if the intended meaning has lower
cuing value than a different one. And if the observer must interpret an
unfamiliar construct, stumbling on the intended meaning is more of an
accident than the power of interpretation.

Most people, when asked to identify a medium-sized, oblong, green
citrus, will say "lime" rather than "lemon" because the most accessible
characteristic of oblong citrus fruit is color. It makes little
difference that the object in question is, in fact, easily identifiable
as a lemon because of the particulars of its shape, skin texture,
intensity of the color--most observers would never get that far because
their interpretation process ends once they access the main color
characteristic. Believe it or not, I actually tried this experimentally
a few years ago (and the subjects were highly educated, cosmopolitan
Californians, so there was no lack of familiarity with lemons and
limes). But, in the same experiment, I was even more surprised when
nearly all subjects identified a somewhat round, bright yellow mango as
an "orange", even though the fruit did not exhibit *any* characteristics
of a citrus.

"US inaugurates first ever black president" cues up "US inaugurates [US]
president" rather than "The first black president in _world_ history".
Somehow "Lab gets microscope" does not sound the same to me as "US
inaugurates president". It's simply false equivalence.


Laurence Horn wrote:
> At 6:39 PM -0400 7/19/09, Victor wrote:
>> Just wanted to share this headline:
>>>> Edmonton lab gets first ever Japanese Microscope
> I'm not sure it has that reading for me, or not exclusively.  Given
> that the headline is, I assume, elliptical for "(An) Edmonton lab
> gets its first ever Japanese microscope", and not for "...gets the
> first ever Japanese microscope", it's no odder in principle than
> "Nolan Ryan Pitches Seventh No-Hitter", which would be universally
> interpreted as describing the 7th no-hitter thrown by Ryan, not by
> anyone ever.  Or "Elizabeth Taylor Weds 5th Husband".  But what of
> "Baby Takes First Steps Ever"?   There are 28K "first steps ever"
> hits on google, many of which would lend themselves to such a
> headline (assuming the headline writer is a parent of the child in
> question). Or
> "US inaugurates first black president ever"
> which I think is compatible with there having been black presidents
> of, say, countries in Africa (*its* first, not *the* first, once
> again).

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