Implicature by comparison

We can find implicature all around us, from how we use sarcasm, to how we use innuendo.  I think that some comparisons can communicate something else, too.  So, say, for example, that I say:

Today's as hot as hell.

We take the second comparator as a given (exceedingly and unrelentlingly hot) and use that given to determine something about the first (that it is very, very hot).  The implicature of this is that you know that hell is very, very hot, and that then gives us information about today.  This works with lots of them:

She is as hot as Georgia asphalt

As strong as a bull

Drunk as a lord

I'm not as drunk as you think I am

So the lesson: our defaults are to take the second comparator as the given. You have to be committed to the obviousness of the heat of GA asphalt and the strength of bulls.  Lords are drunk, and it's clear you must think I am very, very drunk. The second comparator can't be even in question for the analogy to be successfully communicative.  (Or, at least, it is communicated as being taken as beyond question.) Notice how one of the two following comparisons is the funnier 'your momma' joke than the other:

Your momma is as fat as Jupiter

Jupiter is as fat as your momma

The second, because your momma's fatness is taken as the base comparator for Jupiter, not the other way around.  That's funny… in a 'your momma' joke sort of way. Here's where the interpretive lesson gets weird.  I bought some bargain basement cat litter at the corner market, and it had the following comparison on the back:

It reads:

For those of you who are as passionate about your pets as you are about price.

Isn't the implicature of this comparison that whoever buys this cat litter is someone who is passionate about price?  Isn't this an overstatement?  Shouldn't it be realistic about price? Moreover, isn't this a questionable thought?  I'm not passionate about price at all, but I love my cats.  So shouldn't the comparators be switched?  I think it's a more obvious commitment that we're passionate about the pets. I don't buy cheap cat litter because I have a passion for saving money, but rather, I have a passion for beer, travel, nice things, cats, and so on.  So I buy cheap cat litter to fit the budget.  That's not price-passion.  That's other-stuff-passion. Or, perhaps, I'm not the target market — I had no idea Ebenezer Scrooge was a cat-owner. 

3 thoughts on “Implicature by comparison”

    I read "it's hot as hell" as "it's hot to the extent that hell is hot." I could also say "it's hot as Antarctica" and mean that it's not really that hot in the sense that Antarctica is not hot. Of course, the latter is probably meant in jest.
    Perhaps your issue is really with "passionate about price." It is an awkward phrasing (A price is not something that generally turns people on. Maybe one is passionate about finding the lowest price…), but I interpret it as "extremely thrifty." So, if I'm extremely thrifty — I imagine I'm clipping out coupons every day and buying only the most basic needs when they are on sale — and I have cats, then this must be the litter for me.
    Perhaps a better phrasing might be: For those of you who love your pets as much as saving money.This still puts the economical desire over the love for your cats, but that's not necessarily an incorrect assumption. However, it certainly risks offending some cat owners who do love their pets more than the lowest price.

  2. Hi Sean, a nice point about the implication of the primary comparator being that it's unquestioned that the buyer must be passionate about price. 
    I do, however, take issue with the reading of 'hot as hell'.  I don't think that all comparisons require that they have the relevant quality to the same degree.  So 'hot as hell,' I think we agree, requires that we unquestionably hold hell to be very hot, but I don't think my account makes it so that the comparison means that it actually be as hot as hell… we do use hyperbole in some comparisons, see strong as an oxHot as hell is one of those.

  3. My interpretation of "hot as hell" as "hot to the extent that hell is hot" does not rule out hyperbole. In fact, it's pretty obvious that one can't measure how hot hell is, that the temperature is probably not similar to Antarctica's, and that a human is not as strong as an ox. But to avoid the temptation of quantification and to be more general, we could also use "sense," "manner," or "way," as in "hot in the way that hell is hot."
    My translation (or desugaring in my field) only gives a way to clarify what is meant. That is, "as X as Y" can approximately be restated as "as X in the manner that Y is X." Of course, this doesn't always work, esp. when one starts using profanities for emphasis in Y. But it provides a reasonable approximation.

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