Jokes and the Linguistic Mind by Debra Aarons

Question: What do you call a cross between a collection of hilarious jokes and a collection of dull academic papers written by a dyed-in-the-wool Chomskyan linguist?

Answer: A big disappointment.

Jokes sit at the intersection of language, cognitive psychology and  illusions, all topics that fascinate me. Sadly, however, I was rather bored by Jokes and the Linguistic Mind. I think the reason was not that the author explained the jokes but that she did it in what I felt was an unnecessarily long-winded, robotic, repetitive, jargony kind of way. Anyone who explains jokes takes the well-known risk of killing the frog to understand it better, but I think once you’ve killed the frog, you should jolly well stop beating it like a dead horse.

Silver lining? I love the MC Escher stairscape on the cover. Moreover, many of the jokes used as examples of various linguistic phenomena were funny. See below for more on the aspects of the book I enjoyed.

But first, can I just say, nobody needs to say “inter alia” so often. Or at all. I also got extremely tired of the phrase “illocutionary force” by the time the author was finished dealing with that particular topic. Now, then. Moving on.

Funny jokes reprinted in
Jokes and the Linguistic Mind

Are you going to come quietly or do I have to use earplugs?
(The Goon Show, 1958. Vintage Goons series; episode 8)

Hitler: My dog has no nose.
Crowd: How does it smell?
Hitler: Terrible.
(Monty Python’s Flying Circus)

Every 15 minutes in New York City a man gets mugged. If I were him, I’d leave.

Otto says: They call them ‘fingers’ but I never see them fing.
(The Simpsons, episode 1316

I’m a rageaholic! I’m addicted to rageahol!
(The Simpsons, episode 287)

If a vegetarian is someone who eats only vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

A Freudian slip is when you mean one thing, but you say your mother.

What is the definition of an agnostic, dyslexic insomniac?
Someone who lies awake at night wondering if there’s a dog.
(Groucho Marx, 1890–1977)

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

A Buddhist went to a hamburger bar and said, “Make me one with everything.”

This morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know.
(Groucho Marx, 1890–1977)

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
(Groucho Marx, 1890–1977)

Q: What’s worse than raining cats and dogs?
A: Hailing taxis.

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
(Groucho Marx, 1890–1977)

Q: What do ducks do before they grow up?
A: They grow down.

Q: If someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, and someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, what do you call someone who speaks one language?
A: An American.

Q: Why do French people only have one egg for breakfast?
A: Because one egg’s un oeuf.

Q: What’s orange and sounds like a parrot?
A: A carrot.

Fun facts in Jokes and the Linguistic Mind

The word “edit” is a backformation from the word “editor”; it wasn’t originally a verb (97).

The faux suffix -orama (which, among other such suffixes, I’ve never liked) was taken from the word “panorama” (98). I suppose people started using it to suggest that something or other is “all around”, in the way that a panorama shows you a kind of wide view.

Cranberry morphemes are the source for some of the strange expressions upon which Jack Winter built the famously entertaining 1994 New Yorker story “How I Met My Wife”.

If you don’t know what they are, read the Time article on eggcorns.

Chapter 7 mentions Mots d’heures: Gousses, Rames—the d’Antin Manuscripts by Luis D’Antin van Rooten, a book full of what looks like French but sounds like English Mother Goose rhymes. My high school French teacher used to challenge us with these. Sadly, the book is out of print! For a similar kind of challenge, try the game Mad Gab.

Mark Twain had some perceptive and humorous things to say about the German language, and said some of them in German. Here you can read the literal English rendering of his address to the Vienna Press Club.

English spelling is not as phonetic as one could imagine because it serves as an important historical record (193). In fact, arguments for keeping unintuitive English spellings mirror arguments for keeping Chinese characters.

I love self-reference jokes. They are touched on briefly (195). The “two positives don’t make a negative” anecdote is retold.

“…up with which I will not put” is not actually due to Winston Churchill.

The source of many prescriptive rules in English was Latin; such rules as “never split an infinitive” are largely ignored today in part because they were always rather forced. Despite substantial infusions of French and Latin, English is fundamentally Germanic, not Latinate, and thus has a separate set of grammatical tendencies entirely (206).

Now I know what cryptic crossword puzzles are. They’re different from what I think of as “normal” crossword puzzles. Example clue: “Someone beyond criticism raced wildly in boat.” The answer, “sacred cow”, is formed by splitting the word “scow” with an acronym of “raced”. Some people juggle geese. (Some people solve dozens of riddles like this for fun. Go figure.)

When and Why I Read It

Though up until I read this book, I’d had zero exposure to humor research, I’d long wanted to read about how jokes work. I’d had my eye on this book for some time, and I’d been looking forward to reading it. I finally decided to buy this book after The Language Instinct inspired me to seek out other books in the field of psycholinguistics.

Genre: nonfiction (linguistics / cognitive science)
Date started / date finished:  21-Oct-16 to 31-Oct-16
Length: 257 pages
ISBN: 9780415890496 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2012
Amazon link: Jokes and the Linguistic Mind

Since I only ever saw the front cover of the book online until the book showed up in an Amazon box on my doorstep, I assumed the spine was black. It’s not; it’s bright blue. Joke’s on me.