Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Language laughs – For the health of it

We think in words, mostly. So if we have a lot of words at our command, and if they are complex and sophisticated words, we can think complex and sophisticated thoughts. That seems only logical, yes? It doesn’t mean that poor language skills make us dumb, but it does mean that a rich vocabulary can lead to fuller, more intellectual thinking.

That’s why language is both essential and worthy of our attention, even of our study. Today’s column, however, looks at a different benefit of a full and robust vocabulary — humor. No one will deny the sheer classic joy of using a banana peel properly, but humor that is word-based brings a different kind of delight, and it can take many different forms.

Playing with words’ sounds or appearance can make a joke, often by using a familiar phrase or concept in a new way. Look at the following examples. Attribution for them is mixed at times, but the Internet has facilitated their widespread enjoyment.
- If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him he has the right to remain silent?
- If a parsley farmer is sued, can they garnish his wages?
- Rigor Morris: The cat is dead.
- Respondez s’il vous plaid: Honk if you’re Scots.
- Acupuncture is a jab well done.

A favorite of mine is the silly Groucho Marx line, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” It’s clever because it uses two meanings of “flies,” two meanings of “like,” and a wonderful sense of rhythm. The two clauses are so similar in cadence that you’re caught unawares when you get to “banana.”

Another from Groucho: “A child of five could understand this. Fetch me a child of five.” I laugh every time I remember that one, partly because it fits his snide persona, partly because “fetch” is so much funnier than, say, “bring.” “Fetch” is funnier because the “f” sound is better (the play and movie of “The Sunshine Boys” will explain that), but also because “fetch” is more arcane. “Find me a child of five” would give the “f” sound, but it’s too common.

I don’t know which of his classic sayings Groucho wrote and which he bought, if any, but his bizarre humor is apparent in this one: “Outside of a dog, a book is your best friend, and inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.” Weird humor, but I mention it because it is dependent on the double meaning of “outside,” without which the joke couldn’t go inside.

Here are a few more, all from well-known humorists who were extremely aware of words and how to use them.

“I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” - Mark Twain
“He had delusions of adequacy.” - Walter Kerr
“Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.” - Oscar Wilde
“He has Van Gogh's ear for music.” - Billy Wilder

Of course, it helps to be old or learned enough to know who those people were, because most of the quotes fit the public persona of the speaker. Are you familiar with Mae West? If so, you can hear the inflection of her voice in this quote: ““His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”

Finally (and this might very well be just me), I find daily humor in unintended redundancies. For example, my wife and I have terrific yoga instructors, and almost all of them give the instruction to “slowly lower yourself down to the mat.” Naturally, I always do so with a smile as I wonder if the really advanced yogis can lower themselves UP.

Here’s another. It’s not a knee-slapper, but I’d like you to think about it. Sometimes, numbers are treated in this way — “We have sixty-two (62) faculty members; twenty-four (24) have graduate teaching status.” What part of “62” or of “sixty-two” is so confusing that one needs both words and digits? Oh — I read sixty-two, but I didn’t see any digits, so I thought you meant eleven!

Let’s finish with an amusing redundancy that is almost universal and certainly will never disappear. Let it serve as a reminder to pay attention to what we’re saying. Do you like tuna fish? Do you see the redundancy? It makes me want to order chicken fowl.


No comments: