A colleague emailed to say that her son was taking her to a dental appointment at 2.30. 

Tooth-hurty – geddit?

It’s an old joke, and no-one responded with exactly that, because she’d alluded to it in her email. Another colleague replied that her son was obviously driving her to extraction. 

There are approximately 6,000 to 7,000 languages in the world and I would guess that this joke works in approximately one of them, and then only because of questionable grammar. In Korean, for example, 2.30 is 세시 삼십분 (se-shi sam-ship-bun) and tooth hurts is 이가 아파요, which obviously don’t sound anything like each other. 

무슨 이? 이 이!



I shouldn’t get up and browse Facebook when I wake up at 1 am, but I did. I followed a link from a friend’s page to humour-based page. One post there was:

Cops just left, they said if I’m gonna walk around my house naked, I have to do it inside.

Many words have multiple meanings, and many jokes exploit this. The usual and natural meaning of “walk around my house naked” is “to various parts in”, but the joke uses the meaning of “a circuit of the outside”. Walking around naked outside is either not recommended or actually illegal.

At the risk of over-analysing the joke, would our understanding of the sentence change if it said:

I walked around my house in my pajamas


I walked around my house in my tracksuit


Meanwhile, it is possible to think of perfectly ambiguous statements: “I put up Christmas lights around my house”.

( lists 32 sub-meanings of around.)

Knock, knock

Many years ago, I visited one of my sisters and her family. Her children had just been given a giant book of jokes and riddles and were eager to try them out on me. One was:

Q: What did they give the man who invented the door knocker?
A: The no-bell prize.

You wouldn’t think I’d remember one particular joke from one particular visit to my sister’s house, but I do.

I recently saw a variation on this:

Whoever invented the knock-knock joke should get an award. Maybe the no-bell prize.

Many years ago I went on an 8-day hosted coach tour of western Europe. While we were in Switzerland, some group went to Swiss dinner/cultural night. I wasn’t planning to go, but the tour director made it sound so interesting that I just had to. I was chosen with others to sing a yodelling song, which was about as authentically yodelling as The lonely goatherd is. Afterwards, I asked the tour director whether she’d set me up to be chosen (we’d established that I had a strong musical background – I’d just finished an actual choir tour). She looked very innocent and said “Me?”, which I took as a yes.

On the way back to the hotel, she attempted to explain the origin of yodelling, with a shaggy dog story about a farm labourer who had his way the the farmer’s wife and young daughters. The farmer eventually caught him in the act and said “You’ve been [making love to] my daughters!”. The labourer said “And your old lady too!”.

There is a knock-knock joke to the same effect:

Who’s there?
Little old lady.
Little old lady who?
I didn’t know you could yodel.

In order to tell her that joke, I first had to explain what a knock-knock joke is. The fact that this particular joke is a subversion of the formula didn’t help.

I have previously written about various linguistic points of interest arising from my trip to Europe, but didn’t include that.

“Yeah, right”

There is a joke which circulates in slightly different forms, but a typical version is:

An MIT linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

“Yeah, right” can express a negative, but it doesn’t always. Its default interpretation is positive: “Do you want to eat a pizza?” “Yeah, right”. It becomes negative only when rendered as sarcasm by context and intonation. It’s always fraught to say “every language” or “not a single language” when talking about grammar, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that there’s no language in which the default interpretation of a double positive is negative. Or if there is, it needs a better example than “Yeah, right”. If a double negative is something like “I didn’t do nothing” (which is negative, despite what the MIT linguistics professor said), then a double positive is something like “I did something”, which certainly isn’t negative, and can’t be rendered as sarcasm. 

Many years ago, a particularly obnoxious newspaper columnist wrote about Saddam Hussein having approximately five nuclear weapons, and how much of a danger to world peace that made him, and how much Western nations were justified in invading Iraq. I emailed her to point out that George W Bush had thousands of nuclear weapons ready to launch. Her reply, in its entirety, was “Yeah, right”.

My dog has no nose

A; My dog has nose.
B: How does it smell?
A: Terrible!

At the risk of over-explaining a venerable joke (your mileage may vary as to how funny it actually is(n’t)), this joke relies on the fact that smell means both emit an odour and perceive an odour. B means How does it perceive an odour?. A’s response means It emits a terrible odour. But you knew that.

The same thing happens with taste, which means both emit a flavour (for the want of a better, short description) and perceive a flavour. Because dogs are more famous for their sense of smell than their sense of taste, and because we are more likely to smell dogs than to taste them (even in Korea), the following joke would not work (unless as a bizarre parody):

A: My dog has no tongue.
B: How does it taste?
A: Terrible!

(Actually, there are taste buds elsewhere in the mouth, so it has a reduced sense of taste.) Continue reading

Arrr, me hearties!

A few days ago at the gym I saw on one of the televisions a quiz show which gives the question and a choice of four answers. One question and answers was (approximately): “Which one of these is a pirate in the 1883 novel Treasure Island? A) Long John Silver B) Chips O’Hoy C) Polly Wanda Cracker D) Buck Kinnear”. The contestant didn’t know. The contestant didn’t even guess.

Quite apart from whether any random quiz show contestant might be expected to know the answer directly or indirectly, possible thought process: “John is a real given name, Silver is a real surname and I’ve heard that name somewhere. Chips is a nickname, but doesn’t sound very 1880s [the novel is set in the mid-1700s], O’Hoy might be a real surname [it is, but Hoy is more common], but ‘Chips O’Hoy’ sounds like a joke name. Polly and Wanda are real given names, but Cracker isn’t a real surname and ‘Polly Wanda Cracker’ sounds like a joke name. Buck could be a real nickname and Kinnear is a real surname, but ‘Buck Kinnear’ sounds like a joke name. Hmmm … I’ll go for ‘Long John Silver’.” It’s possible to think all that in the time allowed to answer.

I’m not sure that I could have kept a straight face if I was the quizmaster, either at the names or the contestant’s inability to even guess.

C’mon, it’s only 16 years ago!

Oh now I feel old! The topic in the textbook was science, and as a filler I showed the students some science-related movie trailers, starting with the ‘based on a true story’ movies Hidden figures, The theory of everything and The right stuff. Then I showed some science fiction, starting with 2001: A space odyssey. I said ‘How many of you remember 2001’? I was expecting a few hands. I don’t know how old my students are, but I would guess late 20s or even early 30s for some of them. (Others are much younger, possibly late teens or early 20s.) No-one (but me) remembers 2001???? At least they could have said ‘Oh, that was the year I started school’ (as indeed one of my nieces said when I posted on Facebook about this later.)

Then I showed them Back to the future 1 & 2, and 1989’s imagining of 2015 made much more sense to them than 1968’s imagining of 2001. (In general, BttF got more right than 2001.) Along the way I found 10 Things Back to the Future 2 Got Right, 10 Things Back to the Future 2 Got Wrong and a parody by CollegeHumor made in 2015 with the benefit of nowsight. I also tried to find the American talk/comedy show which snared Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd as guests on 21 October 2015, but I couldn’t find it and couldn’t remember whose show it was on. A Facebook friend later told me it was Jimmy Kimmel.

Continue reading

die/dye/dye it/diet

One of the topics in the textbooks this week was clothes and fashion, including hair. What’s left of my hair might fairly be described as ‘greying’ (rather than ‘grey’). I said ‘My wife wants me to dye my hair. Do you think I should?’. One student said ‘Yes, I think you should dye’ — which, of course, sounds exactly like ‘I think you should die’.

die/dye is used in at least one limerick which I could vaguely remember but couldn’t find on the internet. Fortunately, one of the limerick books I have is organised alphabetically by the last word of the first line, so I easily found it there. It runs:

Said a fair-headed maiden of Klondike,
‘Of you I’m exceedingly fond, Ike.
To prove I adore you,
I’ll dye, darling, for you,
And be a brunette, not a blonde, Ike.’

I vaguely remembered the third and fourth lines as ‘To prove that I’m true/I’d dye, dear, for you’. This limerick is probably more effective when spoken rather than when read.

There is another joke which relies on dye it/diet, which I similarly can’t find. It’s something like:

Girlfriend/wife: I don’t like my hair colour/My hair is going grey. Do you think I should dye it?
Boyfriend/husband: [something unkind about her weight]

PS It might have been the other way round:

Her: My bum is too big. I’m going to diet.
Him: What colour?