Subject Material

7 The Linguistics of Silly Jokes

Published: 13.12.2009
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Questions

  1. Choose a suitable answer from the list on the right for each of the questions on the left. You will find the correct answers by considering pronunciation, spelling, word plays, etc.
  2. Explain why each correct answer is funny but appropriate. Here you will have to refer to features of language.


1 What did the jack say to the car?

a A cartoon.

2 What does seven days of dieting do?

b A milk lorry.

3 What is the science of shopping?

c U (and) I.

4 What is the difference between a bus driver and a cold?

d … because its capital is always Dublin.

5 What song does a car radio play?

e They make one weak.

6 Why was the girl named Sugar?

f Can I give you a lift

7 Why is Ireland so rich?

g Biology.

8 Waiter, there’s a twig in my soup.

h …because she was so refined.

9 How do you spell we without using the letters W and E?

i One knows the stops, the other stops the nose.

10 What gives milk and has one horn?

j O I C U R M T

11 What is the best thing to take when you’re run down?

k When he is a miner.

12 What time is the same spelled backward and forward?

l You can’t tuna fish.

13 When is a grown man still a minor?

m Noon.

14 What is the difference between a fish and a piano?

n Hold on Sir, I’ll call the branch manager.

15 What did the kid say when he opened his piggy bank and found nothing?

o The number of the car that hit you.

 

Key task 1

1f, 2e, 3g, 4i, 5a, 6h, 7d, 8n, 9c, 10b, 11o, 12m, 13k, 14l, 15j

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Key task 2

The Linguistics of Silly Jokes

  1. What did the jack say to the car? Can I give you a lift?
    Give you a lift
    means ‘to offer somebody a free ride’, but when combined with jack (Norw. jekk) and lift(Norw. løft), the question gets a more literal meaning. Can I lift you up?
  2. What do seven days of dieting do? They make one weak.
    There is a word play on week/weak. The two words are homophones (words pronounced the same way but spelt differently). Seven days of dieting makes one week/weak.
  3. What is the science of shopping? Biology
    The spelling buyology would turn the ‘science of shopping’ into a scientific term. So the joke trades on another case of words with the same sounds but different spellings (and meaning of course); biology and buyology.
  4. What is the difference between a bus driver and a cold? One knows the stops, the other stops the nose.
    This is another case of word play. For one thing, knows and nose are pronounced in the same way. Secondly, the noun stops refers to places where the bus stops and then to the verb to stop (=‘to block’). So there is a double word play here.
  5. What song does a car radio play? A cartoon
    British English tune [ tju:n] is often pronounced [tu:n] in American English, so cartoon [ka:’tu:n] with stress on the second syllable would be pronounced as ‘car tune’ [‘kar ‘tu:n] in AmE,but with two stressed words. That is the basis for the joke.
  6. Why was the girl named Sugar?…because she was so refined
    The word refined can be used about sugar (Norw: raffinert) and about people who are polite and discriminating in their judgments. The word is ambiguous (tvetydig).
  7. Why is Ireland so rich?…because its capital is always Dublin
    The crucial word is Dublin, which is pronounced almost like doubling. In fact, in non-standard English doubling has a final [n] and not a velar sound, so the two words are pronounced in the same way.
  8. Waiter, there is a twig in my soup.  Hold on Sir, I’ll call the branch manager.
    This is a take-off on the traditional ‘waiter jokes’. The crucial word is branch, which means both part of a tree (Norw: gren) and ‘local outlet/shop’ (Norw: filial). The word twig (Norw: kvist) supports both meanings in the answer. So we have a case of ambiguity.
  9. How do you spell we without using the letters W and E? U (and) I
    This joke needs no explanation.
  10. What gives milk and has one horn? a milk lorry.
    The word that this joke rests on is horn. It is ambiguous and can mean what you hoot when you drive a car and one of the two pointed and curved parts on the heads of cows and sheep.
  11. What is the best thing to take when you’re run down? The number of the car that hit you.
    The word take in the question combined with the ambiguous run down- literally ‘knocked down by a car’ and ‘feeling exhausted’- suggests that take means some medicine you take. But the answer disambiguates it. Take must mean ‘note/take down the number of the car’.
  12. What time is the same spelled backwards and forwards? noon
    This needs no explanation
  13. When is a grown man still a minor?  When he is a miner.
    The same pronunciation of minor (somebody who is not an adult) and miner (somebody who works in a mine) makes this a case of homophones.
  14. What is the difference between a fish and a piano?   You can’t tuna fish.
    Tuna corresponds to Norw. ‘tunfisk’, but tuna also sounds like tune a (piano), ‘dvs. stemme et piano’. The joke rests on this double meaning.
  15. What did the kid say when he opened his piggy bank and found nothing? O I C U R M T
    If you pronounce the letters you get: Oh, I see you are empty. Very funny!!

 

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