language play

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LANGUAGE PLAY SEE ALSO 'AMBIGUITY' AND 'JOKES' by Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L. F. Nilsen


ALLUSION 'Allusion' is the noun form of the English verb 'to allude.' 'Allude' comes from Latin 'ad-' plus 'ludere' meaning 'to play.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 23)


'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 (Caster and Pollack). People could say either 'Jiminy Cricket' or 'Jiminy Christmas.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 23)


But 'Jiminy Cricket' also has the initials J. C., so this particulr swear word takes on more serious consequences. Remember than 'Jiminy Cricket' was Pinocchio’s conscience. What better conscience could one have than one with the initials J. C.? (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 23-24)


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.'


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: That’s OK. Look at Joan of Arc. People laughed at her, but she went ahead and built it anyway. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 24)


ANTITHESIS Antithesis occurs when opposite concepts are connected so as to make a surprising kind of sense as in a Master Card advertisement showing a picture of a tall man looking at a shirt. The caption reads, 'You found a 50 long. But you’re $17.00 short.' The World Book Encyclopedia ran a summertime advertising campaign under the slogan, 'Schools are closed…Minds are open.' The Hoover Company advertised its irons with 'The iron with the bottom that makes it tops.'


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 America’s first instant Vice-President and then I became America’s first instant President. The Marine Corps Band is so confused they don’t know whether to play 'Hail to the Chief' or 'You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 178)


CHIASMUS Chiasmus is when words are repeated in inverted order: Mae West said, 'It’s not the men in my life that counts; it’s the life in my men.' A bumper sticker reads, 'Aging is a matter of mind: If you don’t mind, it doesn’t 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: We’ve got what it takes to take what you’ve got.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 179)


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 andamp; Nilsen 179)


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 life-threatening mistakes, a union leader observed that officers had succumbed to the John Wayne syndrome. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 179)


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 andamp; Nilsen 179)


Joe is a simple generic name as in Joe Six-Pack, 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 andamp; Nilsen 179)


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 andamp; Nilsen 180)


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, Shair’s Wares, Young’s Oldies, and Fine’s Finds. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 180)


The Watergate Hotel is where the break-in of the National Democratic headquarters occurred. Today’s 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 andamp; Nilsen 180)


Diseases are sometimes given metonymous names. For example, the Pickwickian Syndrome gets its name from Charles Dicken’s 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 andamp; Nilsen 180)


Ondine’s 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. Legionnaire’s 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 andamp; Nilsen 180)


NONSENSE The literal meaning of Nonsense is that it doesn’t 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 Carroll’s 'Jabberwocky' poem where he created frabjous and galumphing, new words which caught on so that most people at least recognize them today. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 180)


Nonsense can also be found in the logic of some seemingly serious pieces as in Charles Dicken’s story for children 'The Magic Fishbone,' in which he makes fun of large Victorian families by describing Princess Alicia’s 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 andamp; Nilsen 180)


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 andamp; Nilsen 180-181)


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 andamp; Nilsen 180-181)


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 andamp; Nilsen 181)


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, I’m tired and glad to go back to bed---with Ben Gay. What a life! (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 181)


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 mouth 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 andamp; Nilsen 181)


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 once-removed personification, since a 'one-armed bandit' is itself a personified reference to a gambling machine. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 181)


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 Ranger’s announcement that 'We are being followed by Indians,' with 'What you mean we, Paleface?' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 181)


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, 'Father…This is Marvin! He’s asked for my hand.' The father replies, 'Marv….It’s the whole package or nothing.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 181)


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 andamp; Nilsen 179)


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 andamp; Nilsen 179) Here are some more examples of Zeugma:


! 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 couldn’t 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 won’t get hurt if you hand over all the money, keep quiet, and validate this parking ticket.' (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 179-180)


!Here are some more examples: 'You were never lovelier, and I think it’s 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.' There’s no fool like an old fool; you just can’t beat experience. An apple a day keeps the doctor away; an onion a day keeps everyone away. Rome wasn’t built in a day; the pizza parlors alone took several weeks. (Nilsen andamp; Nilsen 179)




References # 1: Bateson, Gregory. 'The Theory of Play and Fantasy.' Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Ed. G. Bateson. San Francisco, CA: Chandler, 1972, 177-193. Chiaro, Delia. The Language of Jokes: Analysing Verbal Play. New York, NY: Routledge, 1992. Christie, James F. 'Play and Early Literacy Development: Summary and Discussion.'Play and Early Literacy Development. Ed. Christie, James F. New York: SUNY Press, 1991, 233-246. Christie, James F. 'Psychological Research on Play: Connections with Early Literacy Development.' Play and Early Literacy Development. Ed. Christie, James F. New York: SUNY Press, 1991, 27-46.


References # 2: Collins, Christopher. Reading the Written Image: Verbal Play, Intrepretation, and the Roots of Iconophobia. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. Cook, Guy. Language Play, Language Learning. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. Crystal, David. Language Play. London, England: Penguin, 1998. Dixon, Wallace E., and Cecilia Shore. 'Language Style Dimensions and Symbolic Play.' Journal of Play Theory and Research 1.4 (1993): 259-270. Farb, Peter. Word Play: What Happens When People Talk. New York: Bantam, 1973.


References # 3: Geller, Linda Gibson. Word Play and Language Learning for Children. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1985. Hauptman, Don. Cruel and Unusual Puns. New York, NY: Dell/Laurel, 1991. Kirshenblatt, Gimblett, Barbara, ed. Speech Play. Philadelphia: Univ of Penna Press, 1976. Lederer, Richard. The Play of Words: Fun and Games for Language Lovers. NY: Pocket Books, 1990. Morreall, John. 'Sarcasm, Irony, Wordplay, and Humor in the Hebrew Bible: A Response to Hershey Friedman.' HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research. 14.3 (2001): 293-302.


References # 4: Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Vocabulary Plus--High Schook and Up: A Source Based Approach. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2004. Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Vocabulary Plus--K-8: A Source Based Approach. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2004. Nilsen, Don L. F., and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Language Play: An Introduction to Linguistics. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1978. Ryan, M. L. 'From Verbal Play to Verbal Art: Grice's Maxims and the Strategies of Everyday Conversation.' Journal of the Linguistic Association of the Southwest 4 (1981): 30-44.