The mother-in-law solution

The Mark Parisi Off the Mark cartoon that was posted here originally has been removed because it violated copyright. Here’s a description of its content:

Main image: White-haired woman, gagged and feet bound, in a large skillet on a stove, while a younger woman holds the skillet and sprinkles salt (or pepper) on the older woman. Voice balloon coming from the left:

Mmmm! Honey, that smells just like my mother’s cooking!

You don’t see a lot of ambiguities turning on possessive ‘s (my mother’s cooking ‘my mother’s cookery’) vs. reduced-auxiliary ‘s (my mother’s cooking ‘my mother is cooking’ — itself ambiguous between my mother referring to the person doing the cooking and to the thing being cooked). In this case, it’s crucial that like is also ambiguous, between a preposition (combining with an NP object and meaning, roughly, ‘resembling’) and a subordinator (combining with a clause and meaning, roughly, ‘as if’).

That gives three principal readings for that smells just like my mother’s cooking:

(a) ‘that smells just the way my mother’s cooking smells’

(b) ‘that smells just as if my mother is cooking something’

(c) ‘that smells just as if my mother is being cooked’

The speaker intended reading (a) (or, just possibly, reading (b)), but reading (c) corresponds to what’s happening in the cartoon: the addressee is cooking her mother-in-law. With apparent relish.


3 Responses to “The mother-in-law solution”

  1. Dean Says:

    Salt or pepper maybe, but certainly not relish.

  2. Victor Steinbok Says:

    With apparent relish.

    Shouldn’t that be “with a parent relish”? 😉

  3. The goofy joke « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Interlocked ambiguities are a feature of many entertaining jokes and gags, like the “like my mother’s cooking” cartoon here.) […]

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