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Illegal Refuse Presentation


Fans of Edinburgh will enjoy Geoffrey Pullum’s post two days ago at Language Log. Pullum is a British linguist who spent many years at UC Santa Cruz, but returned to the UK two years ago to become a professor at the University of Edinburgh. He is also one of the founders of Language Log, along with Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the recent post, Pullum returns to one of his recurring topics, which he has come to call nerdview, and which occurs when a document is written “in technical terms from the perspective of the technician or engineer rather than from a standpoint that would seem useful to the customer or reader.” (This quote is taken from an earlier Pullum post on nerdview.) I will leave it to Pullum to tell the story of his latest example of nerdview, the sentence, “This refuse has been checked for illegal presentation,” courtesy of the city of Edinburgh. The light he sheds on life in Edinburgh makes the post worth reading independent of the linguistic issues. Here’s a sample, without the context Pullum has provided regarding the challenges of setting out garbage for pickup in the New Town area:

You see, Edinburgh is basically on a seacoast. We have seagulls.

These large, wily, and sharp-beaked birds don’t spend all their time on the arduous traditional pursuit of catching live fish. Several days a week they head inland for an easier life, and flock to the New Town (they know exactly which streets to head for on which days). They come with the breaking dawn, looking for bags that were illicitly put out at midnight. In the spring and summer there is enough light to spot them as early as 4 a.m.; plenty of time to have breakfast before the streets start getting crowded with people walking to work.

Great gangs of gulls rip open the sacks, pull out packaging and envelopes and other dry trash and toss it all over the place, and dig around for discarded food, which they drag out and eat on the sidewalks (which are called “pavements” here; I hope you are appreciating the vocabulary lessons I have built into this piece). By 7 a.m., the street in front of many houses looks like a municipal dump. …

These birds are big, omnivorous, and fearless: you cannot frighten them away more than about ten feet. They come straight back the moment you move on. And they have no sense of civic pride whatsoever. Edinburgh is heart-stoppingly beautiful, but the gulls do not appreciate that. On some pickup days I have had to come home and use a shovel and broom to clear up outside our home.

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