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Linguistic Humor, and

Language Play

by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen

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Funniness of a Text
A text is funny if and only if the text is
compatible (fully or in part) with two
distinct scripts, and the two distinct
scripts are in some way opposite.
(Ruch [2008] 25)

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Victor Raskins Joke


Is the doctor at home? the patient asked in
his bronchial whisper.
No, the doctors young and pretty wife
whispered in reply. Come right in.
Script opposition: Non-Sex vs. Sex
(Ruch [2008] 25)
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ALLUSION
Allusion is the noun form of the
English verb to allude.
Allude comes from Latin ad- plus
ludere meaning to play.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 23)

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JIMINY CRICKET AS AN ALLUSION


The expression By Jiminy used to be a
swear word. In fact it was a double
swearword, because it was swearing by the
constellation Gemini which represented
the twins (Castor and Pollux).
People could say either Jiminy Cricket or
Jiminy Christmas.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 23)
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But Jiminy Cricket also has the initials J.


C., so this particular swear word takes on
more serious consequences.
Remember that Jiminy Cricket was
Pinocchios conscience.
What better conscience could one have than
one with the initials J. C.?
(Nilsen & Nilsen 23-24)

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CONFUSED ALLUSIONS
Comedian Michael Davis juggled with
the ax that George Washington had
used to chop down the cherry tree.
However, I did have to replace the
handle. ..
and the head.
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On the George Burns and Gracie Allen


television show, Gracie often got her
allusions wrong.
GEORGE: If you keep saying funny things,
people are going to laugh at you.
GRACIE: Thats OK. Look at Joan of Arc.
People laughed at her, but she went ahead
and built it anyway.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 24)
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ANTITHESIS

Antithesis occurs when opposite concepts are connected so as


to make a surprising kind of sense as in a MasterCard
advertisement showing a picture of a tall man looking at a shirt.
The caption reads, You found a 50 long. But youre $17
short.

The World Book Encyclopedia ran a summertime advertising


campaign under the slogan, Schools are closedMinds are
open.

The Hoover Company advertised its irons with The iron with
the bottom that makes it tops.

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Shortly after Gerald Ford assumed the U.S.


Presidency, he amused an audience at Ohio
State University by saying:
So much has happened in the few months
since you were kind enough to invite me to
speak here today. I was then Americas first
instant Vice-President and then I became
Americas first instant President.
The Marine Corps Band is so confused they
dont know whether to play Hail to the Chief
or Youve Come a Long Way Baby.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 178)
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10

CHIASMUS

Chiasmus is when words are repeated in inverted order:

Mae West said, Its not the men in my life that counts; its the life in
my men.

A bumper sticker reads, Aging is a matter of mind: If you dont mind,


it doesnt matter.

Another bumper sticker reads, Marijuana is not a question of Hi,


how are you but of How high are you?

A one-liner that is popular around tax time reads, The IRS: Weve got
what it takes to take what youve got.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 179)

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EPONYMY
Eponyms are created when the name of a
real or mythical person is used in reference
to something other than the individual.
In 1992 the term Frankenfood started being
used for genetically altered tomatoes or
other foods.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 179)

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12

During the first Gulf War, American soldiers said they


were taking Johnny Weissmuller showers because the
cold water made them scream like Tarzan.
When Ross Perot was running for president, John
Chancellor described Perot as holding the Daddy
Warbucks theory of presidential qualifications.
When a report stated that over 500 out of the 700
shooting incidents in which Los Angeles police were
involved between 1987 and 1994 were potentially lifethreatening mistakes, a union leader observed that
officers had succumbed to the John Wayne syndrome.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 179)

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Sometimes the eponymy is based on first names as in


the noun Lazy Susan, the verb to peter out, or the
exclamations Great Scott! and By George!
Sometimes the words rhyme as with even Steven, flap
jack, and ready for Freddie.
Sometimes there is alliteration as in gloomy Gus,
dumb Dora, and nervous Nellie, or assonance as in
alibi Ike, fancy Dan, sneaky Pete, long johns, and
screaming Meemie.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 179)

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Joe is a simple generic name as in Joe SixPack, which is a refinement of the Good Old
Joe concept, seen earlier in Joe Blow and
Joe Schmo, and in the more specific G.I. Joe
(from General Issue) for a soldier.
Other examples include Joe (or J.) Random
Hacker for a computer whiz, Holy Joe for an
army chaplain, Joe College for a student, and
even Joe Camel for the controversial cartoon
character that sold Camel cigarettes.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 179)
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METONYMY
Metonymy occurs when something is named for a
quality that is in some way associated with the item.
In the days of CB radios, people often chose
handles that were descriptive of their physical
characteristics or their hobbies
Today with e-mail and the Internet some people
choose nicknames that are metonymous.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 180)

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Jeff Gordon, a professor of geography at Bowling Green State


University in Ohio, collects interesting names of antique shops.
He has over 300, including these:

Another Fine Mess


As You Were
The Collected Works
Fourscore and More
A Touch of Glass
Den of Antiquity
Owners names can be seen in Suzantiques, Shairs Wares,
Youngs Oldies, and Fines Finds.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 180)
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The Watergate Hotel is where the break-in of the


National Democratic headquarters occurred.
Todays dictionaries give more room to the
metonymous meaning of Watergate than to the
literal meaning of a gate controlling the flow of
water.
Gate has now become a suffix meaning scandal
as in Irangate, Contragate, Iraqgate, Pearlygate,
Rubbergate, Murphygate, Gennifergate, Nannygate,
Monicagate, ad infinitum.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 180)

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Diseases are sometimes given metonymous


names. For example, the Pickwickian
Syndrome gets its name from Charles
Dickens The Pickwick Papers in which Joe
the Fat Boy constantly falls asleep.
The disease is a condition in which blood
veins going to the brain are squeezed so that
people fall asleep in the midst of activities.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 180)

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Ondines Curse describes a condition in


which sleeping people cease breathing and
die without awakening. It is named for a
mythological water nymph who cursed her
mortal lover when he betrayed her.
Legionnaires disease is named for 29 victims
who died after attending a 1976 American
Legion convention in a hotel with a
contaminated air-conditioning system.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 180)

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NONSENSE
The literal meaning of Nonsense is that it doesnt
make sense; however nonsense verse and other
nonsense is carefully put together so that it has a
strong rhythmic quality that serves to highlight
logical infelicities and nonce words.
Nonce means only once. Nonsense words are
coined for a particular use as in Lewis Carrolls
Jabberwocky poem where he created frabjous and
galumphing, new words which caught on so that
most people at least recognize them today.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 180)

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Nonsense can also be found in the logic of


some seemingly serious pieces as in Charles
Dickens story for children The Magic
Fishbone, in which he makes fun of large
Victorian families by describing Princess
Alicias family:
They had nineteen children and were always
having more. Seventeen of these children
took care of the baby, and Alicia, the eldest,
took care of them all. Their ages varied from
seven years to seven months.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 180)
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OXYMORON
Oxymoron comes from two Greek words oxys
meaning sharp and moros meaning foolish or
dull.
This paradox or contradiction can be seen in such
expressions as Icy-Hot (an arthritis medicine), Cool
Fire (a line of shoes), and Soft Brick (a floor
covering).
An article in People Magazine (March 3, 1986) about
Warren S. Blumenfeld, who brought oxymorons to
the attention of the general public, contains fourteen
oxymorons:
(Nilsen & Nilsen 180-181)
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It was a new tradition---the First Annual Florida Snowmobiles


Ball.
As he gazed across the crowded room, he saw her sitting on the
real vinyl banquette.
She was a relative stranger, but he was attracted by her seductive
innocence.
Sophisticated good ole boy that he was, he adopted an air of
studied indifference as he mused upon the planned serendipity of
their meeting.
What if she is a closet exhibitionist? he wondered.
What if she thinks my minor surgery is old news?
Still she was his only choice.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 180-181)
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In truth, is it possible to desegrate schools


with all deliberate speed?
Can there ever be a civil war, or friendly fire?
In Vietnam could the United States launch a
peace offensive?
Some people go so far as to wear a button
that says, Anarchists Unite!
(Nilsen & Nilsen 181)
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PERSONIFICATION

Even before infants have mastered language, they respond to


toys as if they were human, and in the earliest nursery rhymes
and stories, animals, dolls, choo-choo trains, and teapots
come to life.

This kind of personification is a kind of fun that we never


outgrow as shown by this paragraph from an often reprinted
lament to old age:

As soon as I wake, Will Power helps me get out of bed. Then I


go see John. Then Charley Horse comes along, and as soon as
he leaves, Arthur Ritis shows up and for the rest of the day we
go from joint to joint. After such a busy day, Im tired and glad
to go back to bed---with Ben Gay. What a life!
(Nilsen & Nilsen 181)
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PUNS
Richard Lederer in the introduction to his Get
Thee to a Punnery said that puns are a
three-ring circus of words: words clowning,
words teetering on tightropes, words
swinging from tent-tops, words thrusting
their heads into the mouths of lions.
Tony Tanner said that a pun is like an
adulterous bed in which two meanings that
should be separated are coupled together.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 181)
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Debra Fried defined puns as the weird


accidents, amazing flukes and lucky hits
that the one-armed bandit of language
dishes up.
This last example is a case of onceremoved personification, since a onearmed bandit is itself a personified
reference to a gambling machine.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 181)
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SYNECDOCHE
Synecdoche is a specific kind of metonymy in which
a part of something is used to represent the whole
thing.
We refer to the movies as the big screen or to
television as the tube.
In a popular joke about the Lone Ranger show, Tonto
uses synecdoche when he responds to the Lone
Rangers announcement that We are being followed
by Indians, with What you mean we, Paleface?
(Nilsen & Nilsen 181)
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Football kicker Lou Grossa was called The


Toe, while the outspoken baseball player and
coach Leo Durocher was called The Lip.
Actress Betty Grable was called The Million
Dollar Legs, while Jimmy Durante was called
The Schnoz.
In a Brant Parker Wizard of ID cartoon, a girl
brings a boy home and introduces him with,
FatherThis is Marvin! Hes asked for my
hand. The father replies, Marv.Its the
whole package or nothing.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 181)
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ZEUGMA
Intentional Faulty Parallelism is called
Zeugma.
Chuckles the Clown on the Mary Tyler Moore
show said,

A little song
A little dance
A little Seltzer down your pants!

(Nilsen & Nilsen 179)


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Naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch wrote that


the most serious charge that can be brought
against New England is not Puritanism, but
February.
Henry Clay declared that he would rather be
right than President.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 179)
Here are some more examples of Zeugma:

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!When William F. Buckley Jr. was campaigning for mayor


of New York City in 1965 and railed against the
restrictions being put on New York City police, he
complained that they couldnt use clubs or gas or dogs
and then concluded with, I suppose they will have to
use poison ivy.
Sid Caesar said that tequila is our national drink
because it kindles the spirits of our hearts.
Then he added, And it keeps our cigarette lighters
working.
A Wall Street Journal cartoon by D. Cresci pictured a
bank robber informing the teller, You wont get hurt if
you hand over all the money, keep quiet, and validate
this parking ticket.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 179-180)
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!!Here are some more examples:

You were never lovelier, and I think its a shame.

One swallow does not a summer make, but Humpty Dumpty


makes a great fall.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may be


radioactive.

Theres no fool like an old fool; you just cant beat experience.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away; an onion a day keeps


everyone away.

Rome wasnt built in a day; the pizza parlors alone took several
weeks.
(Nilsen & Nilsen 179)
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!!!LANGUAGE PLAY WEB SITES


AMERICAN DIALECT SOCIETY:
http://americandialect.org/
HUMOR, LINGUISTICS & NAMES (ALLEEN AND DON NILSEN):
http://www.phoenixartspace.com/icm/
HUMOR QUEST (Mary Kay Morrison):
http://www.questforhumor.com/
MALEDICTA (REINHOLD AMAN):
http://www.sonic.net/maledicta
RICH HALLS SNIGGLETS:
http://www.ziplink.net/users/wood/funny/snigglets.html
VERBIVORE (RICHARD LEDERER):
http://www.verbivore.com

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Related PowerPoints
Ambiguity
Animal Language Play
Bilingual Humor
Jokes
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