It's what people used to call a platter of legumes.
June 1, 2018 11:52 PM   Subscribe

"What's A?" "It's what people used to call B." Without any other context, is "A" an old name for "B", or is "B" an old name for "A"?

For example, a child who has only known Denali to be called by that name could find an old trail guide and ask, "What's Mount McKinley?" and be told "It's what people used to call Denali." On the other hand, an adult who hadn't heard about the name change might find a new trail guide and ask, "What's Denali?" and be told "It's what people used to call Mount McKinley."

Without context, which interpretation seems more likely to you?
posted by J.K. Seazer to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
That "B" is an old name for "A". The other way makes no sense to me. Wouldn't the latter example be something like "It's what people call Mount McKinley now"?
posted by solarion at 11:58 PM on June 1, 2018 [12 favorites]


A is the old name, since one is more likely to ask about an old name than the current one.
posted by typify at 12:04 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


The problem is the word "used" is given two different meanings.
In my mind, "It's what people used to call B" means "It is the name that was previously used for B" so the first example works for me.
The only way the second makes sense is if the phrase is translated at "It is the name that is people now use to refer to B. But I had to read your sentence a few times to even figure out how that second format even made sense. I think if the second uses "use" instead of "used" it would be clearer.
posted by metahawk at 12:15 AM on June 2, 2018 [4 favorites]


A is the old name. I feel like the sentence parses the other way, but it's weird phrasing to me.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:29 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


The Denali example is too confusing because Denali was called Denali for centuries, then was called Mount Mckinley, and is now called Denali again.

The network ABC Family recently changed its name to Freeform.

What's ABC Family? It's what people used to call Freeform. (A is the old name)
What's Freeform? It's what people used to call ABC Family. (B is the old name)

The first sounds more natural although with context I think most people would get the second. I think if you were answering the second question, it would be phrased differently-- "it's what used to be known as" or a variant. That phrasing wouldn't work for the first question ("What's ABC Family? It's what used to be known as Freeform" is nonsensical).
posted by acidic at 12:35 AM on June 2, 2018 [7 favorites]


Yeah, I think it's the "people used to call" phrasing that makes it weird. It would be much more natural to say "it used to be called ABC Family." Saying "people used to call it" that is confusing because who? Which people? Everyone, or just some people? It almost makes it sound like "ABC Family" was a nickname or something.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:41 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


B is the new name, unless there are quotes around it or spoken emphasis that implies quotes. "What's Beijing? It's what people used to call Peking" doesn't work, but "What's Beijing? It's what people used to call 'Peking'" does.
posted by tomcooke at 12:56 AM on June 2, 2018 [12 favorites]


What acidic said about Denali's name-changes.
posted by lokta at 1:28 AM on June 2, 2018


B is the new name, unless there are quotes around it or spoken emphasis that implies quotes. "What's Beijing? It's what people used to call Peking" doesn't work, but "What's Beijing? It's what people used to call 'Peking'" does.

Ohhhh. Yes, this.

In linguistics this is called the use–mention distinction.
posted by lokta at 1:33 AM on June 2, 2018 [25 favorites]


In speech it's completely ambiguous. Context will always disambiguate though, because the person asking (or hearing the explanation, if it was given without a question) will know one name and they'll know if that name is current or not.

In writing, as others have mentioned here, quotation marks or italics may help.
posted by lollusc at 1:46 AM on June 2, 2018 [5 favorites]


The first one.
posted by pompomtom at 1:47 AM on June 2, 2018


Without context, for what its worth, my initial instinct was to parse "X is what people used to call Y" as x being the new name and y being old.

On the other hand, I think there is supposedly some psychological principle that we more often tend to structure our sentences so that older events come before newer ones. So maybe that means the other interpretation is more likely.
posted by lollusc at 1:53 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


My first read is that A is the old name. Either way is correct, but if I were the one answering the question in conversation, that’s what I’d mean - a different phrasing would feel more natural for the reverse.
posted by songs about trains at 4:00 AM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


It's an ambiguous phrasing where both interpretations are technically correct. I would avoid the phrase if you want to be clear.

Incidentally I am an adult who just learned from this question that Mount McKinley was, and is-again, called Denali.
posted by jozxyqk at 4:41 AM on June 2, 2018


Actually I wonder if it’s

“It’s what people used to call B”

“It’s what people use to call A [now]”
posted by warriorqueen at 4:52 AM on June 2, 2018


I don't know if this makes things more or less clear: English markers of habitual aspect#Used to
posted by XMLicious at 4:53 AM on June 2, 2018


In “X is what people used to call Y” construction, I would assume that Y is the correct or commonly-understood term to use currently. As in the Denali example, either could be older historically, but X is the one not currently in use.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:26 AM on June 2, 2018


A was easily understandable. I agree that B can be read that way, but it took me a bit to see that. B would be more clear as “People used to call it Mount McKinley.” A linguist could probably explain why.

If you were using words I didn’t know, I would assume the A version was meant.
posted by FencingGal at 6:04 AM on June 2, 2018


I also want to mention connotation and denotation.

In the classic example, from Frege - the phrases "morning star" and "evening star" both happen to denote the same object in the sky - the planet Venus. But their connotation (= the wider meaning that is conveyed by the phrase - e.g. the time of day during which we might want to look for that thing) is different.

So, the names A and B both denote the same object. But (very clearly in the case of "Denali" and "Mount McKinley", which is a great example) the connotations of the two names are different - so the reasons why a person might choose to denote the underlying object via one name or the other are also different.

I think a clearer way to put the conversation in the OP would be something like:
"what's A?"
"it's the same thing as B, but for [reasons], some people prefer to call it A"
posted by rd45 at 7:06 AM on June 2, 2018


It depends on the antecedent of "it."

What's Freeform? It (the network) is what (the network) people used to call ABC Family.
What's ABC Family? It (the name) is what (the name) people used to call Freeform.

So they're both valid. Lokta has it with the use-mention distinction; one construction is talking about the thing, the other is talking about the term.

I think, with no other context, I would assume we were talking about the thing, not the name.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:09 AM on June 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


A is an old name for B.

I'm not sure how people are coming to any other conclusion, but...

...oh, wait, now I see it! It's like an optical illusion where your brain can flip back and forth between seeing one or the other, but verbal. Neat!
posted by clawsoon at 8:38 AM on June 2, 2018 [4 favorites]


If A is the old name then the response makes sense, because you're using the current term to help explain the meaning of the lesser-known & possibly obsolete old term.

If A is the new, currently-used term, then the response doesn't naturally follow or help explain what it means.

"What is a horseless carriage?" "It's what people used to call cars."
posted by rocket88 at 11:51 AM on June 2, 2018


Both interpretations make sense depending on where you put the quotation marks.

The verb "call" requires two objects: "We used to call Denali 'Mt. McKinley'" has a direct object, which is a proper noun "Denali" used directly, and an indirect object, which is the quoted string "Mt. McKinley".

So basically your question is: In the exchange "What's A?" "It's what people used to call B", is B the direct object or the indirect object? Spoken English gives us no general way of knowing; we rely on word order to tell direct object from indirect object, and moving the pronoun up front takes that away from us. But in written English, "It's what people used to call Denali" clearly uses B as the direct object, while "It's what people used to call 'Mt. McKinley'" clearly mentions it as the indirect object.

But to answer your question: Although both are valid, I think I'd be more likely to reply to "What's A?" with a reply that means "'A' is just another name for B, a referent that we are both familiar with" than one that means "A has another name, 'B', that we both know." It just seems friendlier somehow, setting up our shared vocabulary as the common reality rather than asserting that I know what things are and you don't. As such, if A is the old name, I might reply 'It's what people used to call B', while if A is the new name, I'd be more likely to say something like 'It's what people call B nowadays'. In both cases, I'm using B and mentioning A.
posted by baf at 1:38 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


After reading your example sentences, I think the problem is that you are not differentiating between "used to", meaning "previously", and "use to", meaning, well, use.

So by this premise, I would rewrite your examples as:
"For example, a child who has only known Denali to be called by that name could find an old trail guide and ask, "What's Mount McKinley?" and be told "It's what people used to call Denali." On the other hand, an adult who hadn't heard about the name change might find a new trail guide and ask, "What's Denali?" and be told "It's what people used use to call Mount McKinley."
Of course, this doesn't make the latter construction any less awkwardly phrased, but it might explain it.
posted by namewithoutwords at 2:01 PM on June 2, 2018


Thinking on it further: If, as I assert, the whole thing hinges on ordering of direct and indirect objects, then the construct "used to" and the use/mention distinction are irrelevant to the ambiguity.

Consider "give", another verb that takes two objects, as in "give the dog a bone".
"What's a bone?" "It's what we give the dog."
OK, that doesn't work very well, because (a) it's implausible that the asker doesn't know what a bone is and (b) we know full well as we read this that the bone is given to the dog, not vice versa.

What if we use nonsense words to eliminate contextual cues?
"What's a flimble?" "It's what we give the gorgifer."
Here, I have a strong intuition that we're talking about giving the gorgifer a flimble, not giving a flimble the gorgifer -- except, wait, I've introduced asymmetry by using a definite article for one and an indefinite article for the other!

I guess our only recourse is to use proper names, like in the original question:
"What's Cranston Enterprises?" "That's the company we plan to give Umcorp."
OK, here we have formal ambiguity: it could be that we're giving Umcorp Cranston Enterprises, or it could be that we're giving Cranston Enterprises Umcorp. I have to say, though, that my intuition is the latter. If it were the former, we'd much more likely say "That's the company we plan to give to Umcorp." But that's the exact opposite of my intuition with the gorgifer and the flimble, so I guess these things are highly volatile, flippable by the faintest of cues.
posted by baf at 2:32 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


I vote ambiguous.

"What's NewThing? It's what people used to call OldThing (a long time ago)."

"What's OldThing? It's what people used to call (what we now know as) NewThing."
posted by Rhaomi at 3:18 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think either construction is valid, and it's unclear because "to call" is very flexible. Try using synonyms for the verb "call", that require more conjunctions (?).

It's what people used to (refer to as) B.
Its what people used to (say for) B.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:44 PM on June 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


"Now that is what we used to call a fine kettle o' fish. A fine kettle o' fish is what we used to call that, yessiree!"
posted by clawsoon at 3:03 AM on June 3, 2018


They definitely both make sense and I’ve used both. First one parses to me as “it’s a name once used for what’s now called Denali”. Second one is “it’s the name now used for for what was once Mt. McKinley.” As others said, it’s all context. But I think this would be super confusing to non native speakers.

Most of the time I’m more long winded and so wouldn’t run into the problem ...
posted by freecellwizard at 6:00 AM on June 3, 2018


There's a big cabinet on the back porch of the folks' house that holds pet stuff & garbage bags. It has always been called "The Green Cabinet". My mother painted it red 10 years ago. It is still known as "The Green Cabinet" which is only confusing to newcomers. I think people like to stick with the name they first knew. (There's a large structure in my town I still refer to as "The PanAm Building".)
posted by Wylie Kyoto at 8:57 AM on June 4, 2018


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