Funny language

As I head off for a few weeks in California (during which I will post from time to time, as I find interesting things to write about), I leave you with a smile on your face.

Let’s begin with an homage to Yogi Berra, a Hall of Fame baseball player (and founder of a baseball museum on the campus of the university where I teach, Montclair State), who has contributed as many smiles to American faces as anyone alive. Here are some of his aphorisms:

This is like deja vu all over again.
Baseball is 90% mental — the other half is physical.
It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.
The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase.
You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.
I didn’t really say everything I said.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
You can observe a lot just by watching.
You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.
Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.
I knew I was going to take the wrong train, so I left early.

I can barely stop quoting him – these tickle my funny bone, no matter how many times I hear them.

The New Yorker used to feature snippets of headlines and other reportage, my favorite of which was (I write from memory – it was a long time ago. See how funny stuff sticks in your brain): Correction:  Page 46 should read ‘pull your rip cord,’ not ‘state your zip code.’  The editors have discontinued the practice. I still subscribe, but miss my favorite part of the magazine, such a welcome antidote to their sober, well-researched articles.

Richard Lederer has compiled some gems from his years as a teacher at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in the book Anguished English, An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language.

A passive verb is when the subject is the sufferer, as in ‘I am loved.’
The Gorgons had long snakes in their hair. They looked like women, only more horrible.
The difference between a king and a president is that the king is the son of his father, but a president isn’t.

His students write of the River Stynx and Mount Montezuma where Abraham was set to sacrifice Isaac. King David was known for fighting the Finkelsteins, and Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.

The malapropisms are legion:

She has unmedicated gall.
In many states, murderers are put to death by electrolysis.
The marriage was consummated at the altar.

Mr. Lederer goes on for 117 pages – much too long to read in one sitting:

Man arrested for possession of heroine.
Panel agree to much sex on television.
Reagan goes for juggler in Midwest.

– but enough already.

Another classic of humor is The Devil’s Dictionaries, by Ambrose Bierce and Chaz Bufe.  It begins with:

Abnormal, adj. Not conforming to standard. In matters of thought and conduct, to be independent is to be abnormal, to be abnormal is to be detested…

sails through Mafia, n. An uncommonly straight shooting group of businessmen.

Ending with Yes, Dear, excl. For women, an indication that the speaker is not listening to them. Synonyms: “Yes, honey,” “Of course, honey,” “Anything you say, dear,” and a self-deprecating definition of Zeus, under “Z.”

So don’t take your language for granite, as Mr. Lederer’s students might say. It could be one of your favorite toys.


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