08 November 2011

Case Study in Semantic Ambiguity: "Get Your Booty on the Floor"

On my milk run this morning, I heard Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam" over the Kwik Shop's speakers. A catchy little tune, no doubt. But what really interested me was this part of the chorus: "I don't want a place to stay / Get your booty on the floor tonight / And make my day."

I tried to imagine how an English as a Second Language (ESL) learner would go about decoding this utterance -- especially the phrase, "get your booty on the floor." After some thought, I concluded they would probably have a lot of trouble with it because of its semantic richness.

What I mean is that most of the words in the phrase "get your booty on the floor" can have several different definitions, forcing the interpreter to choose the correct meaning of the word not once, but at least three times. If the ESL learner didn't have a context to plug this phrase into, s/he would probably be pretty lost.

I think it would help to see some examples. Here's a table of definitions for the three semantically heaviest words in the sentence: "get," "booty," and "floor." I have tried to organize each word's definitions by frequency of common use. Since the verb in this phrase is clearly imperative, I have maintained that voice in the table.

getobtainPlease get a gallon of cheap wine at the liquor store.
getput or moveGet that cat out of my bathtub!
getunderstandGet this: I do not want you feeding cheap wine to the cat anymore.
bootyhinder partsThat drunk cat scratched my booty.
bootyfootwear (primarily for infants)I haven't seen the baby's other booty since the cat disappeared.
bootyplunderYarr! I drank those humans' grog and brought this little baby-shoe back as me booty!
floorlower surface of a roomIs that a hairball on the floor?
floorthe entire level of a buildingI found a really nasty hairball on the third floor.
floorsurface used for a specialized purpose (such as dancing)Why is that drunken cat with the eyepatch on the dance floor?

So, here are just a few of the possible (but incorrect, in this case) interpretations of the phrase "get your booty on the floor":
  • Obtain plunder on the specialized surface
  • Understand baby shoes on one of the levels of a building
  • Move your hinder parts onto the lower surface of the room

I'm sure you get the idea.

The semantic richness of the words in this phrase is pretty remarkable. Even more remarkable, though, is the fact that most native English speakers would correctly interpret the phrase as an imperative to move their synecdochic hinder quarters onto the specialized floor for the express purpose of dancing. And still more amazingly, they would probably do so in milliseconds.

Even an ESL learner would probably not have significant problems with understanding this phrase, given the context of the song.

It's astonishing that the human brain can sort through all the possibilities and select the right one almost instantaneously. As the Psalmist said, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made."