Saturday, March 29, 2008

Word of the Week: under

This week I bought a new office chair that required some assembly -- five steps, to be exact. Step one involved putting the casters on the base. Step two involved attaching the metal “Seat Plate” to the seat cushion with four screws that had to be fully tighten (so the instructions said, in bold).

Step three involved attaching the Back Support Plate to the rear of the Seat Plate using four screws. The directions for this step included reference to “Detail A” -- an enlarged diagram of the Back Support Plate and the Seat Plate, which was shown already attached to the bottom of the seat, per Step 2. Along with the diagram, Detail A also specified: “Assemble Back Support Plate under Seat Plate”.

The diagram was a bit confusing because it just had an arrow showing the Back Support Plate and the Seat Plate coming together -- neither was actually shown under the other. Of course, there was the additional specification in words that said the Back Support Plate goes under the Seat Plate. But, to get the Back Support Plate under the Seat Plate I’d have to loosen the four screws I had just tightened per Step 2. Hmmm….

I re-read the instructions a number of times, wondering whether I should loosen the screws from Step 2 and proceed with Step 3. On about my 4th read of the instructions I noticed a toll-free number. It was for ordering parts, but I called it anyway.

Eventually I spoke with someone who claimed he knew how to assemble the chair. After some discussion (I know he assumed I was blond) he persuaded me NOT to loosen the Seat Plate screws to be able to slip the Back Support Plate under the Seat Plate. Instead, he told me to just put the Seat Plate on top of the Back Support Plate using four screws and tighten them up. That’s what I did -- and the seat is fine.

The rest of the afternoon I pondered how “under” could actually mean “on top of”. Finally I figured it out: under is relative to direction. For Steps Two and Three I had the chair seat upside-down because I was working on it (attaching parts to it). Interestingly, Diagram A also showed the chair seat upside down. But, the person who wrote the words describing the assembly was describing the parts relative to the way the parts are oriented toward each other when the chair is standing upright.

So, “under” is the word of the week because this story's a useful reminder that sometimes the definition of a word might be obvious, but to understand the word's meaning, you may need other information.


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