Disambiguating the Briefs

The long and short of itWhen you were in school, your English teacher probably asked you—on more than one occasion—to write a brief paragraph about this or that. You may have been asked, also, to write a short paragraph, although it's unlikely the same teacher would have asked you to do both. The reason, of course, has to do with actual versus commonly accepted meaning, and we all know how finicky some teachers can be when it comes to word choice.

Take underwear. No, I don't mean your friend's underwear, because he might punch you in the nose. I mean your own. Go ahead and take off your underwear right now. I'll wait. Okay, now hold your underwear up to the light. What do you see? Depending on your preferences in life, you should be looking at briefs or boxers. If it's a thong, you can't participate in this experiment. Just step outside for a moment and smoke a cigarette, and we'll call you shortly.

Anyway, what you're holding up right now is arguably short, yes? And yet, if you walk into your friendly neighborhood clothing shop and ask for shorts, you'll probably be directed to a different sort of garment than had you asked for briefs. To make matters worse, walking into the very same store and asking for boxers will result in grave disappointment if you were intent on purchasing some really big guys wearing trunks, whose hands are covered by large mittens that aren't nearly as soft as they look.

On the other hand, walking into a pet shop and asking for Boxers will get you medium sized—yet extraordinarily solid—dogs, assuming they have any in stock. But in the very same shop, asking for briefs or shorts may get you arrested if you're overly persistent in the matter, or become quarrelsome. In a similar way, discussing your shorts with an electrician doesn't necessarily indicate a preoccupation with undergarments; it probably means you've noticed sparks flying from your wall outlet, or perhaps an annoying jolt when you switch on your lights in the evening.

If you happen to have a Boxer named Tyson who enjoys chewing your boxers and wears briefs while creating shorts in the extension cord he found in the closet where you hang your shorts, and if he once had a brief encounter with a short postal employee—who may have been wearing shorts and briefs—thereby forcing your attorney to file a legal brief on your behalf, probably in his boxers if you got him out of bed in the middle of the night, and you were tempted, at the time, to box the Boxer's ears, it's likely your problems can't be solved using ordinary methods.

So while it's certainly possible to generate a short paragraph, you may have to resort to setting your tabs wide and configuring your printer for landscape, instead of portrait orientation to accomplish this. A brief paragraph is easier to implement; it doesn't rely on a ruler for physical measurement of its dimensions. In any event, context can't always be relied upon to disambiguate.

Next time: How to avoid feeling hemmed in while hemming your boxers.


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