Search This Blog

Monday, August 1, 2011

83. From my archives: The Punishing Joys of Ambiguity

I've been browsing, of late, through old documents, old back-up discs ... now and then I find something that I wnat to hang on to, and share. This is one. It dates from my years of teaching Professional Writing & Editing at NMIT; I compiled it around 2006. Not all of it is orginal - it's composed of stuff I found here and there. But while not original, it is entertaining.

One of the great joys – and frustrations - of the English language is the way meanings can so easily slide about. In English, two and too don’t always make four. There are some lucky – and some not so lucky – coincidences that enable English people to pun around and find unexpected and pleasurable new meanings and associations hidden in seemingly straight-forward words and phrases.

If we look at just a few of the examples below, we can see all kinds of productive coincidences emerging.

A common comedic formula is the play on words named after the Reverend Spooner. Back in the 50s and 60s there were dozens of word jokes around based upon this confusion with the beginning sounds of key words. A couple of examples will make the point:

Q. What’s the difference between an engine driver and a school teacher?
A One trains the mind and the other minds the train.

Many of us will remember the old child’s rhyme: One potato, two potato, three potato, four. It’s the echo of that simple rhyme, and the unexpected punch line in the last word that makes One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor so appealing.

In the third example – there is a double echo going on. One hinges around the absence of prophets – of people with god-given powers to foretell events. The other, tucked away in there, is the profit/prophet connection, and the perception of profiteering by self proclaimed prophets who dupe people into make cash contributions to further the work of god on earth.

A fourth category arises when the logic or words leads us into an illogic of ideas. For example: If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?

1. Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things.
2. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.
3. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
4. If man evolved from monkeys and apes, why do we still have monkeys and apes ?
5. The main reason Santa is so jolly is because he knows where all the
bad girls live.
6. I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, "Where's the self-
help section?" She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.
7. What if there were no hypothetical questions?
8. If a deaf person swears, does his mother wash his hands with soap?
9. If a man is standing in the middle of the forest speaking and there is no woman around to hear him ... is he still wrong?
10. If someone with multiple personalities threatens to kill himself, is it considered a hostage situation?
11. Is there another word for synonym?
12. Isn't it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do "practice"?
13. Where do forest rangers go to "get away from it all"?
14. What do you do when you see an endangered animal eating an endangered plant?
15. If a parsley farmer is sued, can they garnish his wages?
16. Would a fly without wings be called a walk?
17. Why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will clean them?
18. If a turtle doesn't have a shell, is he homeless or naked?
19. Why don't sheep shrink when it rains?
20. Can vegetarians eat animal crackers?
21. If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him he has the right to remain silent?
22. Why do they put Braille on the drive-through bank machines?
23. How do they get the deer to cross at that yellow road sign?
24. Is it true that cannibals don't eat clowns because they taste funny?
25. What was the best thing before sliced bread?
26. One nice thing about egotists: they don't talk about other people.
27. Does the Little Mermaid wear an algebra?
28. Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery?
29. How is it possible to have a civil war?
31. If one synchronized swimmer drowns, do the rest drown, too?
32. If you ate pasta and antipasta, would you still be hungry?
33. If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?
34. Whose cruel idea was it for the word "Lisp"; to have an "S" in it?
35. Why are hemorrhoids called "hemorrhoids" instead of "asteroids"?
36. Why is it called tourist season if we can't shoot at them?
37. Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song?
38. If the "black box" flight recorder is never damaged during a plane crash, why isn't the whole airplane made out of that stuff?
39. Why is there an expiration date on sour cream?
40. Do baby ducks walk softly because they can’t walk hardly?

No comments:

Post a Comment