No whey in hell

On Pinterest this morning, along with a bunch of Gary Larson cartoons, this cartoon by Dan Thompson from some time ago:


Ingredients: “Little Miss Muffet”; homophony (or near-homophony) of whey and way; the complex AmE idiom no way in hell. Bonus: Anne Taintor.

The nursery rhyme.


From Wikipedia:

“Little Miss Muffet” is a nursery rhyme, one of the most commonly printed in the mid-twentieth century.

The rhyme first appeared in print in 1805, in a book titled Songs for the Nursery. Like many such rhymes, its origins are unclear. Some claim it was written by Dr Thomas Muffet (d.1604), an English physician and entomologist, regarding his stepdaughter Patience; others claim it refers to Mary, Queen of Scots (1543–87), who was said to have been frightened by religious reformer John Knox (1510–72). The former explanation is speculative, and the latter is doubted by most literary scholars, who note that stories linking folk tales or songs to political events are often urban legends] Several novels and films, including Along Came a Spider, take their titles from the poem’s crucial line.

What with curds, whey, and tuffet, the rhyme presents challenges to most modern readers. But then kids tend to roll with the punches in nursery rhymes; they’re used to them not making a lot of sense.

Whey and way. For a minority of modern speakers, these two words (and a number of other pairs) are distinct, with a voiceless (and breathy) initial in the first, a voiced initial in the second; other speakers have a voiced initial in both. (I have the distinction, but for those of us who do, the distinction is lost, in favor of the voiced approximant, in a variety of linguistic, discourse, and social contexts,)

The point is that whey and way are either homophonous or very close to it, which is what makes the no whey / way in hell joke work. The devil tells Miss Muffet that there’s no whey in hell — with no whey in hell understood literally, as ‘not any whey available in hell’ — but he’s also telling her that there’s no way in hell he’s going to get her some curds and whey from hell’s kitchen — with no way in hell understood as an informal emphatic AmE idiom, conveying ‘not in any circumstances’.

Note that what makes the devil’s assertion in the cartoon so satisfying is that he intends to convey both meanings.

The idiom. From NOAD2 on the idiom no way (as in no way I’m going to help you):

informal under no circumstances; not at all

It’s also emphatic (and, though NOAD2 doesn’t note this, mostly AmE).

The idiom can be made even more emphatic with the extension in hell. In an Anne Taintor collage:


Anne Taintor. (Apparently I’ve never posted on Taintor the captionist, so here’s a bit, starting with the Wikipedia synopsis:

Anne Taintor (born August 16, 1953) is an artist whose themes deal with domestic stereotypes, as viewed through the lens of mid-century advertisements typically found in publications such as Ladies Home Journal and Life. Juxtaposing these images with tongue-in-cheek captions, her work serves as a commentary on the stereotypes of women popularized in the 1940s and 1950s. She has been credited by some as being a pioneer in the pairing of mid-century imagery with modern slogans.

Wonderfully wry. Two more examples, from a gigantic corpus:



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