The Joy of Ambiguity

One of the most enjoyable elements of my last (and first) OU Day School was the Philosophy session. As well as covering modus ponens and modus tollens deduction (which became trivial as soon as I converted them to mathematical logic) it also involved analysing a number of short pieces of text taken from the real world.  Each of these were, at least partly, ambiguous and could yield two or more interpretations, e.g. “Trousers only cleaned on Saturdays”.  Often the absence of punctuation was to blame, though English as a language does lend itself rather nicely to ambiguity. This may help explain both the distinctive humour of the English and the prevalence of lawyers in the Anglo-Saxon world (all the less surprising given their hostility to the humble comma – and the profitable use to which that profession is able to put even the slightest ambiguity.  Just ask Jarndyce, or indeed, Jarndyce).

The joy of ambiguity was brought home to me as I wandered, slightly aimlessly, around a Marks and Spencer’s Simply Food in search of sustenance.  I always feel these stores are slightly mis-named as it is far from simple to find anything given the use of a singularly obscure filing system for their stock.

I was rather pleased with the spinach when I eventually rooted it out from its place of concealment.  It was described on the packet as “young large spinach” which makes a nice change from the usual “baby spinach” or just plain “spinach”.  I guess even the giants of the spinach world must have a childhood and it is then that Mr Marks (or Mr Spencer) harvest them before they reach spinach puberty and become surly and uncommunicative.

However, it was an offer I spied whilst queuing for the till that really caught my eye.  A product entitled “60% Peruvian Chocolate” was being sold at a discount.  I don’t know if Peruvian chocolate is particularly good, the Swiss and Belgians seem to garner most of the press coverage, though I believe cocoa does hail from their neck of the woods which might be a good sign.  Sadly my knowledge of Peru extends little further than the llama, serious masonry and marmalade sandwiches (an interest in pre-Columbian civilisations and Paddington bear will only take you so far).  Putting aside the 60% for a moment, it was the other 40% that most concerned me.  My interest in this cocoa-based treat is going to be very strongly predicated on the composition of these mysterious two-fifths.  If they were stem ginger or dried cherries, then I might be tempted; but on the other hand were they comprised of breeze block or polonium 210 (the isotope with a hole in the middle) then it’s hard to imagine any level of discount which would attract my cash.  Or should I have assumed that the other 40% was also chocolate, but from a source less worthy of mention than Peru?

As a result of this disquietude, I declined the free chocolate offered to me as I paid for my goods: there was no suggestion of a Latin American origin but you can never be too careful, even in M&S.  Still, ambiguity is usually a source of fun allowing as it does the more playful reader to deliberately choose the wrong interpretation for (allegedly) comic effect, as on Wednesday night when passing a pub advertising “FISH SPECIALS” my mind conjured an image of an aquatic Two-Tone tribute band.

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