Archive | February 2012

“Erection” in Progress!

Hi guys,

I saw this warning sign at a construction site a few days ago. The first thing that came to my mind was how hilarious it sounded to me. I suspected the amusing effect had something to do with the Chinese-to-English translation, and not being a native speaker of either languages, I looked up the Chinese as well as English words.

“施工中, 不准使用!” literally means “Construction in progress, use not allowed!”.

“erection” is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (MWD) as:

1. a : the state marked by firm turgid form and erect position of a previously flaccid bodily part containing cavernous tissue when that tissue becomes dilated with blood

b : an occurrence of such a state in the penis or clitoris

2. the act or process of erecting something : construction

Apart from MWD which lists the meaning related to a physiological reaction prior to that related to construction, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE), the Macmillan Dictionary (MacD), and the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (OALD) also list the word’s meanings in the same order with the exception of the Cambridge Dictionaries Online (CDO) which only lists one meaning of “erection” which is related to construction. It is interesting that the CDO excludes the other meaning altogether. Is it possible that the CDO tends to give definitions only to formal words since “erection” is a formal word used to denote ‘the construction of some large structure’.

I believe my own priming of this word is in line with the degree of prominence (i.e. the more prototypical interpretation) given to the word in most dictionaries. This explains the humorous effect since a word often primed to be associated with sexual excitement was used in the setting of a construction site. Also, part of the amusing effect can stem from the fact that the phrase “construction in progress” is primed to be used in such a context rather than “erection in progress”. Perhaps the translator of the sign was unaware of the domain-specificity of “erection” (i.e. used in either biology or construction), or (s)he just had a different priming of “erection” from mine. (S)he could have used the more common synonym “construction” instead of “erection” to avoid any mismatch between viewer’s own priming and writer’s priming, since the former has a more restricted meaning (i.e. denoting the building of a large structure).

I have 2 questions though. First question, would any of you have a different reaction from mine when seeing this warning sign, given that it was placed in the right setting (i.e. construction site) which is likely to prime the second interpretation as defined by MWD rather than the first? Strangely, I had the first interpretation even when I was supposed to be primed by the context to go for the second.

Second question (and just for fun), imagine how one would construe the “erection” if the sign was pasted on the door of someone’s dorm room instead. Would one be more likely to understand the word in terms of a bodily function then since the setting probably primes the first interpretation (as defined by MWD)?