Readings — From the November 2013 issue

Out on a Limb

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From a June 2013 blog post by Colin McGinn, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami who resigned last December after he was accused of failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a female graduate student. The student, who remains anonymous, had complained in September that McGinn sent her sexually explicit emails and text messages, including one in which he wrote that he’d “had a hand job imagining you giving me a hand job.” McGinn subsequently deleted the post.

What kind of hand job leaves you cleaner than before? A manicure, of course. Why does this joke work? Because of the tension between the conventional idiomatic sense of “hand job” (a certain type of sex act) and its semantic or compositional meaning (in which it is synonymous with “job done by or to the hand”). Virtually all jobs are “hand jobs” in the second, semantic sense, for all human work is manual work — not just carpentry and bricklaying but also cookery and calligraphy. Indeed, without the hand human culture and human economies would not exist. So really “hand jobs” are very respectable and vital to human flourishing. We are a “hand job” species. (Remember that heart surgeons are giving you a “hand job” when they operate on you; similarly for masseurs and even tax accountants.)

I have in fact written a whole book about the hand, Prehension, in which its ubiquity is noted and celebrated. I even have a cult centering on the hand, described in this blog. I have given a semester-long seminar discussing the hand and locutions related to it. I now tend to use “hand job” in the capacious sense just outlined, sometimes with humorous intent.

Suppose now a Professor P, well conversant in the above points, slyly remarks to his graduate student, who is also thus conversant: “I had a hand job yesterday.” The astute student, suitably linguistically primed, responds after a moment by saying: “Ah, you had a manicure.” Professor P replies: “You are clearly a clever student — I can’t trick you.” They then chuckle together in a self-congratulatory academic manner. Academics like riddles and word games.

But suppose a naïve eavesdropper, overhearing this witty conversation, jumps to the conclusion that “hand job” was being used in the narrow, sexual sense. He then reports the speech act of Professor P as follows: “Professor P told his student that he masturbated yesterday.” He has failed to see the joke and has no knowledge of the linguistic and intellectual background of the speech act. He clearly misreports what Professor P said, missing both the content and the humor. This might lead to some unfortunate consequences if he rashly goes around telling people what he thinks Professor P said, especially if he fails to repeat the very words used by the speaker and paraphrases him in the erroneous way described. Why would the speaker use the rather odd construction “I had a hand job” (which sounds like he paid for one) if he merely meant to say that he masturbated?

Similarly, a professional glassblower might remark to his co-worker with a lopsided grin: “Will you do a blow job for me while I eat this sandwich?” The co-worker will interpret the speaker as indulging in crude glassblower’s humor and might reply: “Sure, but I’ll need you to do a blow job for me in return.” A naïve eavesdropper might report the speech act as follows: “He asked his co-worker to perform fellatio on him” — as if this were the serious intent of the utterance. But that would clearly be wrong; in the dialect of glassblowers a “blow job” is just what you do when professionally blowing glass — though these workers will no doubt be aware of the lay use of the term. Compare saying “Will you do me a hand job and pass the salt?” when using “hand job” in the arch manner described above: this speech act is not to be paraphrased as “Will you masturbate me and pass the salt at the same time?”

These reflections take care of certain false allegations that have been made about me recently (graduate students are not what they used to be). Lesson: reported speech is a bitch (a female dog — be careful how you paraphrase me!). Lives can turn on it. One has a duty to take all aspects of the speech situation into account and not indulge in rash paraphrases. And one should also not underestimate the sophistication of the speaker.

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