Lots of animals have horns. Cows have horns. Rhinoceroses, goats, antelopes, all have horns.
Buildings though, generally don’t have horns.
Which is why I was surprised by a sentence in the book I’m currently reading, Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny. It began:
Periodically, the horns of the temple…
Before I got to the next word, I was already thinking, Wait, how can a temple have horns? Are they structures that are shaped like horns?
And then I read the rest of the sentence:
…were blown, there was a moment’s hushed appraisal of their echo and their clamor began again.
Ah, OK, that type of horn. Of course. Always finish a sentence before jumping to conclusions. The phrase the horns of the building in isolation is of course ambiguous, but logically the kind of horns that make a sound make more sense in this context, rather than giant spiky things sticking out of the temple’s roof.
Though as the technology in the book is generally fairly simple, by modern standards, those horns being blown were actually probably from animals. And do you know what? I’d never made the connection between modern mechanical horns, like in a car, and the horns of animals, until I came across that sentence.
The link is pretty obvious in retrospect: animals have horns, man discovers that blowing through those horns makes a loud noise to get people’s attention, modern devices which make loud noises to get people’s attention are also called horns. But I’d just never made that leap, until I had that little blip while reading the book.
I think it’s because the word is so simple. Complex, multi-syllabic words are easier to pick apart, figuring out the meaning and etymology of individual sections. But horn is just horn. And horns are such boring, everyday things that you don’t really think about them.
Until that is, you have an odd little moment because your brain is getting ahead of itself and interpreting words before you’ve finished a sentence.