How socks changed me: lexical category and syntactic ambiguity

Usually you change your socks, but one day socks changed me.

I got my start on an education by going to college classes at night after work.  I was in the Navy at the time, and the evening classes in the Norfolk, Virginia-area universities were full of people looking to advance their careers, squids like me (squid is military slang for a sailor), and of course typical college students.  Waiting for class to start one evening, I listened to two of them discuss their distaste for dating sailors.  One of them shared her hint for avoiding doing so inadvertently: she identified them by their black socks.  Indeed, we were issued a kind of heavy, padded black sock that was great for supporting your feet inside the low boots that were part of the uniform at the time.  Your tiny little locker on a ship doesn’t allow you the room to have much in the way of clothes other than your uniform, so we wore them all the time, whether in uniform or in civvies.  I’m sure that I was wearing a pair at that very moment.


sock-knitting-poem-rc07899
Poem about knitting socks for soldiers. From a 1918 newspaper, original source unknown. My source: https://goo.gl/dUYUG7

In fact, socks are a crucial part of the military uniform.  In the First World War, they were crucial to the avoidance of trench foot, which could (and frequently did) lead to the loss of a foot, or a leg, or two of them.  They remained important in World War II–socks are crucial to your ability to march.  Today, nothing has changed but the sales platform–whether you’re standing on your feet for hours guarding jets on an air base in Alaska (my cousin did that–he’s in Hawaii now, which makes a hell of a lot of sense to me) or standing on your feet for hours in a military hospital shooting radiopaque dye into people’s coronary arteries (that was me), nothing about the technologization of the American military changes the fact that what’s on your feet is part of your equipment, just like anything else, and you need the best you can get.


The formidable Queen Mary led the movement to keep our troops warm during winter in the trenches, when Lord Kitchener asked her to undertake the huge task of providing 30,000 pairs of socks for our brave lads. Unfortunately with all the nice middle class ladies knitting away, many working class women lost out on a valuable revenue stream. After a meeting with the Queen it was suggested that ladies from the upper echelons might buy the wool and pay the lower classes to knit the socks, keeping everyone happy. —Juliet Bernard, HuffPost United Kingdom, https://goo.gl/ew4Z27

I spent my last few years in the Navy working in a large hospital.  Every fourth day, the people in my group spent 24 hours in the hospital–“on duty,” or “having the dutes,” as we called it.  You know how in the movies when someone’s heart stops, someone comes running down the hall with a big red cart and a defibrillator and shocks them until their heart (hopefully) restarts?  That was us.

That doesn’t actually happen very often, so we spent a lot of time sitting around reading.  This was before the Internet, smart phones, etc., so we brought piles of books, magazines, whatever.  I used to write long letters to my father.  On a typewriter–can you imagine?

One night I was sitting in the lab flipping through a National Geographic.  This was in the late 1980s–less than 10 years after the taking of the hostages at the American embassy in Iran, with the subsequent end of relations between the two countries (except, of course, for the illegal Iran-Contra affair, brought to you by the Reagan administration).  National Geographic is basically a collection of photographs from around the world, with a bit of accompanying text and occasionally a gorgeous map thrown in.  I found one of the photographs particularly interesting.  It was a close-up of an Iranian soldier’s socks, one of which was embroidered with the following words: Through Iraq to the Mediterranean–this was in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war.  The other was embroidered with the words Fill the sea with the blood of the Jews.  

Now, I’m Jewish, like my grandmother, and my sister, and my aunts, and my uncles, and my cousins, and…you get the idea.  So, when you talk about filling the sea with the blood of the Jews, I presume that you’re not going to leave my grandmother out of that particular adventure, or my sister, or my aunts, or…you get the picture.

As it happens, I am also a sharpshooter with the .45 caliber pistol (the handgun of the American military of those times).  I’m not a gun nut–in fact, I hate firearms.  But, when you’re in the military, one of the many things that you learn how to do is shoot people.  It’s fairly standard.

So I figured: fine, fuck you.  You know how to use your weapon, I know how to use mine–maybe one day we’ll meet in a “shooting war,” and then whoever’s the best shot gets to walk away.  I’ll take my chances with that.  And I turned the page…

…to find a picture of a farmer holding his adult son in his arms in the waiting room of a hospital in Tehran.  The kid was a soldier, and had been blinded in the war against Iraq.  The farmer was utterly uneducated, and had brought his son to the Big City to see if the doctors could take his eyes out of his head and transplant them into his son’s.

It was one of the biggest “light bulb moments” of my life.  I was a new father myself at the time, and I would have done anything for my baby, and the connection that I felt with that Iranian father was absolute, total, and complete.  It’s difficult for me to describe what that was like–a sudden awareness of a connection between my soul (and I say that as an atheist) and that of someone on the other side of the world who was quite possibly offended by my very existence (and that of my grandmother, and my sister, and my aunts, and…you get the picture.)  I knew something, immediately, in that moment: I was never going to be OK with killing anybody.  If you’re trying to kill my grandmother, or my sister, or–you know the list–sure, I will put a bullet in you, and thanks to your tax dollars and my fine Navy training, I know how to do it.  But, fine, fuck you?  Not after that moment.

I’m very sorry that I haven’t been able to find the picture of the soldier’s socks, nor the picture of the farmer with his blind son.  I spent a couple hours looking for them on line, with no luck.  If by some chance a reader of this post happens to be able to track them down…  English notes below.  

screenshot-2017-01-20-14-20-50
I found this jewel of a review of a pair of socks on the THORLO web site. “Basic” is “basic training,” more commonly known as “boot camp”–your first training in the transition from civilian to soldier/sailor/whatever. Picture source: screen shot of https://goo.gl/Uk1IYN

English notes

shooting war: in opposition to the Cold War, which did not actually involve violence (overtly), a “shooting war” is the usual kind.  How it was used in the post: So I figured: fine, fuck you.  You know how to use your weapon, I know how to use mine–maybe one day we’ll meet in a “shooting war,” and then whoever’s the best shot gets to walk away.

light bulb moment: when you suddenly realize something.  The image is that the realization comes to you as suddenly as a light bulb turning on.  How it was used in the post: It was one of the biggest “light bulb moments” of my life.

dating sailors: this is an example of ambiguity on multiple levels.  Let me give you a parallel example with less uncommon lexical items–it probably comes from an old edition of Language Files, the Ohio State University linguistics department textbook:

  • Visiting relatives can be annoying.  (You have some relatives, and some of them visit you, and those relatives that visit you can be annoying to you.)
  • Visiting relatives can be annoying.  (You have some relatives, and when you visit them, doing it can be annoying to you.)

On one level, this is ambiguity related to the fact that visiting can belong to multiple lexical categories (what normal people, i.e. non-linguists, call parts of speech).

  • Visiting relatives can be annoying.  (You have some relatives, and some of them visit you, and those relatives that visit you can be annoying to you.)  In this case, visiting is an adjective, and it modifies relatives: it takes the universe of all possible relatives and restricts it to just those that visit.
  • Visiting relatives can be annoying.  (You have some relatives, and when you visit them, doing it can be annoying to you.)  In this case, visiting is a verb, and in particular, a non-finite one–that is, one that doesn’t have a tense, per se.

Going along with that ambiguity with respect to lexical category (part of speech) is a difference in syntactic structure, as well.  In the case where visiting is an adjective, the group of words visiting relatives is what’s called a noun phrase (le groupe nominal, I think), formed by an adjective and a noun.  From a syntactic point of view, this is a relatively simple structure.  (I said relatively–no hate mail from afficionadoes of deeply-embedded X-bar structures and the like, please.)  Scroll down a bit and you’ll find a picture of what this looks like.  In the case where visiting is a non-finite verb, I think that you need to posit something pretty complicated, along the line of a verb phrase within a dependent clause within a noun phrase.  

screenshot-2017-01-20-16-07-06
S is “sentence,” NP is “noun phrase,” and VP is “verb phrase.”  Picture source: screen shot from http://mshang.ca/syntree/. Try it out, it’s super-fun! I mean, for a syntactic tree generator… and if you like bracketing phrases… Certainly more fun than sitting here in my hotel room in the middle of the night thinking about the bullshit-filled speech that I just watched Trump give at his inauguration…

screenshot-2017-01-20-16-10-31
VP is “verb phrase.” The verb phrase forms a clause, and the clause has to be inside a “noun phrase” (NP), or else you have to posit that you don’t need to have nouns to have a subject, which you can do, but then you trade off the less-complex structure for a more-complex set of syntactic categories. You choose. Picture source: screen shot from http://mshang.ca/syntree/.

Want to try your hand at this?  Here are some examples.  (I think I found them on the Sketch Engine web site, but I started writing this post back on the day of Trump’s inauguration, and my memory is a bit hazy, mostly being masked by my horror at the event.)  Label each one as adjectival or verbal, and I’ll tell you what I think the answers are at the bottom of the page.

  1. In the morning our team of highly experienced instructors will kit you out with your riding gear and a Yamaha off road bike, and introduce you to the principles of off road riding.
  2. We all know training is the key to utilizing technology to its fullest extent and saves BIG money in the long run . 
  3. These color tiers provide a quick, visual means of comparing players at different positions with similar fantasy value.
  4. Walking distance to the centre, car parking spaces are a god-send, lovely comfortable beds and clean bathrooms and kitchen.
  5. There are various eating establishments in the village of Gairloch which is about 10 miles away.
  6. The upstairs rooms offer fantastic panoramic views over surrounding croftland to the Torridon Mountains to the east, and over the Minch to the Isle of Skye and Outer Hebrides to the west.
  7. Surveying developments in the medical sciences allows for the identification of those areas, which have particular relevance to cardiovascular disease.
  8. Making our research accessible to a wide range of audiences, and involving people from different sectors and backgrounds in the development of our work has always been one of our key aims.
  9. Her torturers constantly accused her of recruiting and training youths for banditry, and of working with the opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) in an alleged plot to topple Mugabe.
  10. My sources within the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) tell me that days before my piece appeared, the agency had submitted a report to Mugabe’s office specifically accusing both Zambia and Botswana of offering their lands as “ launching pads ” for a military attack.
  11. The increasing realization that their access to ancestral lands was diminishing encouraged many of the Indians to strike at the encroaching whites.
  12. The plan called for the converging columns to maintain a continuous offensive until a decisive defeat had been inflicted on the Indians.
  13. U.S. Army soldiers and Indian warriors engaged in running battles through rugged terrain such as this near Palo Duro Canyon during the Red River War.

This sequence of -ing + noun is very common in English.  It shows up at least three times in this post, once in a verbal construction, the other adjectival:

  • Waiting for class to start one evening, I listened to two of them discuss their distaste for dating sailors.  (Verb)
  • National Geographic is basically a collection of photographs from around the world, with a bit of accompanying text and occasionally a gorgeous map thrown in.  (Adjective)
  • You know how to use your weapon, I know how to use mine–maybe one day we’ll meet in a “shooting war,” and then whoever’s the best shot gets to walk away.  (Adjective)

You may have noted an attempt at humor in the title of this post: How socks changed me.  Usually we talk about changing one’s socks, which means to put on clean socks.  For socks to change a person is quite bizarre not just semantically, but in terms of the odd combination of the verb change and the noun socks that native speakers are quite accustomed to.

socks-australian-children-h11581

Australian schoolchildren during WWI with a pile of socks they’ve knitted. 1918. Picture source: Australian War Memorial, public domain. https://goo.gl/dUYUG7

My best shot at the answers

  1. Adjective In the morning our team of highly experienced instructors will kit you out with your riding gear and a Yamaha off road bike, and introduce you to the principles of off road riding.
  2. Verb We all know training is the key to utilizing technology to its fullest extent and saves BIG money in the long run . 
  3. Verb These color tiers provide a quick, visual means of comparing players at different positions with similar fantasy value.
  4. Adjective Walking distance to the centre, car parking spaces are a god-send, lovely comfortable beds and clean bathrooms and kitchen.
  5. Adjective There are various eating establishments in the village of Gairloch which is about 10 miles away.
  6. Adjective The upstairs rooms offer fantastic panoramic views over surrounding croftland to the Torridon Mountains to the east, and over the Minch to the Isle of Skye and Outer Hebrides to the west.
  7. Verb Surveying developments in the medical sciences allows for the identification of those areas, which have particular relevance to cardiovascular disease.
  8. Verb Making our research accessible to a wide range of audiences, and involving people from different sectors and backgrounds in the development of our work has always been one of our key aims.
  9. V Her torturers constantly accused her of recruiting and training youths for banditry, and of working with the opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) in an alleged plot to topple Mugabe.
  10. Adjective My sources within the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) tell me that days before my piece appeared, the agency had submitted a report to Mugabe’s office specifically accusing both Zambia and Botswana of offering their lands as “ launching pads ” for a military attack.
  11. Adjective The increasing realization that their access to ancestral lands was diminishing encouraged many of the Indians to strike at the encroaching whites.
  12. Adjective The plan called for the converging columns to maintain a continuous offensive until a decisive defeat had been inflicted on the Indians.
  13. Adjective U.S. Army soldiers and Indian warriors engaged in running battles through rugged terrain such as this near Palo Duro Canyon during the Red River War.

7 thoughts on “How socks changed me: lexical category and syntactic ambiguity”

  1. 🎶 ‘All the nice girls love a sailor, all the nice girls love a tar – well there’s something about a sailor coz you know what sailor’s are … bright and breezy, free and easy’ 🎶…. I don’t know if you know that old music hall standard from England but after reading your excellent piece (warts, seas of blood and all) I have it ringing in my ears. Which is not a bad thing – I come from a long line of naval men and women 😊

    Liked by 2 people

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