What would you say?

rogersgeorge on December 10th, 2013

Here’s a fairly funny comic. What’s going on grammatically here?

shoe would

Shoe, March 2012

I suppose if you have to explain a joke, it’s not as funny, but the actual humor, I think, is a play on the stereotype of women being concerned about looking fat, and men’s defensiveness about it. But what about the grammar?

The waitress’ intent is to ask a question with a metaphorical verb (“say” meaning “have the opinion”) and a predicate adjective. This is easier to see if we put in the relative pronoun.

Would you say that I’m fat?

Even that invites a defensive reply about whether Loon would take the verb literally and would he  say anything, “No, I wouldn’t even bring the subject up.”

(Here’s a lesson in expository writing: say exactly what you mean. She really is asking, “Do you think that I’m fat?”)

Loon’s defense, though, is to interpret the question as the imperative of “to say” and as containing an object phrase, hence his reply.

I remember two other jokes that rely on similar misinterpretations.

A guy walks into a soda fountain being tended by a jini. He says, “Make me a chocolate malt.” The jini goes “Alakazam! You are a chocolate malt!” Object  and predicate nominative  ambiguity.

And in grade school back in the fifties this joke ran around. You tell an unsuspecting kid, “Say ‘black eyes’ backwards.”  The thoughtless response of “Ise black” would stimulate gales of laughter. Kids quickly caught on, though, and soon the reply was, “Black eyes backwards.” and they’d make their own laughter.

I’ll let you analyze that last one yourself.

Postscript: It’s about a month after I posted this. Today I ran into a comic that uses this same grammatical misunderstanding. It’s from the Luann comic strip for Dec 22, 2007. Luann is one of few strips that make me regularly laugh out loud.

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