I recently saw this tweet by 3blue1brown, and it got me thinking about how English phrases of the form "[noun] from [year]" work.

The distinction described in the tweet seems to reduce to the following example. If I say "person from 1995", to me this means a person living in the year 1995, perhaps one who has suddenly time-travelled to the present. If I say "computer from 1995", I interpret this instead as a computer in the present that has been around since 1995, but probably not a computer that has instantaneously appeared in the present from 1995.

If you are like me, then "person from 1920" means a person who is living in the year 1920, not a really old person in the present who has been around since 1920. The phrase "cat from 1995" feels more ambiguous to me: does it mean a time-travelling cat that suddenly appears in the present from 1995, or a really old cat that has been around since 1995? In other words, was the cat around during the intermediate years between 1995 and the present?

It seems from these examples that the likely interpretation of these phrases by a native English speaker depends on the degree of animacy of the noun involved. Is there a name for this linguistic phenomenon, or for some principle that could explain it, or am I off base here?

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    A priori, a person from 1995 to me is a person born (or at least living) in 1995, regardless of what time the locution is. A computer from 1995 is a computer ‘born’ in 1995 – most likely referring to it around that time, since computers rarely ‘live’ to be 25 years old. A cat from 1995 is similarly a cat born (or at least living) in 1995, presumably talked about in the context of that time, since cats also don’t generally live 25 years. All these can be changed by the right context, of course, including one that involves time travel. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 4 at 21:35
  • Then you and I differ in this. To me, a "person from 1995" strongly suggests a person living in 1995 or a person who has suddenly appeared in the present from 1995, rather than a person who was, say, born in 1995 and is still alive. On the other hand, a "computer from 1995" strongly suggests to me a computer that was around in 1995 and is still around today. It is possible this is merely a matter of individual variation in English usage, but I suspect it is a real distinction. – user514014 Aug 5 at 21:01
  • Logic and reality are the main drivers for me. If I say, “Jesus, people from 1995 are like at the prime age for babies, how the hell did that happen?”, then I would find it very hard to read it as anything other than people born in 1995. If I say, “Jesus, what are you wearing? You look like a backup dancer from 1995!”, then I would assume it’s referring to someone who was a dancer in 1995, not a dancer born in 1995. But devoid of context, the former would be more likely than the latter to me. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 5 at 21:08
  • I would normally take a person from 1995 to refer to someone who has not lived through the intervening years. For me the expression is not a good fit for someone who was born in 1995 and has been shaped by everything that has happened since. I think computers are different in a couple of ways. They are not shaped by their experience (so a computer made in 1995 is still of 1995 spec today), and their design changes a lot from year to year (whereas the babies born in 1995 were essentially the same as the babies being born today). – rchivers Aug 6 at 4:47
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    Cats do learn but they aren’t really shaped by the historical context they live in, so for present purposes they aren’t like us. On the other hand the kittens born in 1995 were essentially the same as the kittens born today, so they aren’t like computers either. I think you would only find expressions like a cat from 1995 in some context where the cat had been personified. There’s just nothing corresponding to 1995 spec in relation to cats as they really are. Wine is an interesting case because a wine from 1995 means both that it was made in 1995 and that has had 25 years to develop. – rchivers Aug 6 at 4:48

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