More Magrittean disavowals

Today’s Zippy:


One in a long series of Zippy strips about Tod Browning’s film Freaks, the characters in it, and the actors who played them (only some of them posted about here). Also one in a long series of strips referring to the Magrittean disavowal, a contradiction between text and image: in this case, the title of this comic strip, This is not a comic strip.

One more Magrittean disavowel (MD), sort of. This story begins with this Facebook query two days ago from Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky:

I need a three word oath. The instructions are: “[K]eep in mind, that it should be action oriented, use short syllables and leave out punctuation and ampersands”

A cascade of suggestions followed: good advice, wonderful playfulness, catchphrases and quotations, unusable obscenities, the whole gamut. My own contribution was in the form of a MD — Not an oath, understood as an abbreviated version of This sentence is not an oath.

Unlike the title of the comic strip in #1, or the inscription Ceci n’est pas une pipe ‘This is not a pipe’ in Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images — both involving a contradiction between text and image, the text —  the sentence This sentence is not an oath is self-referential (the sentence is about itself).

Now, self-referential sentences can simply be true or false. This sentence is six words long is true, This sentence is five words long is false. This sentence is not an oath is true; it has a surprising tinge to it, but it’s not literally paradoxical. This sentence is false, on the other hand, is genuinely paradoxical: if it’s true, it’s false, and if it’s false, it’s true.

MDs nevertheless have the flavor of paradox, arising (a) from the fact that the text is attached to the image, and consequently feels like part of it, and (b) from the slipperiness of the demonstrative this, which can point to various parts of the context of utterance.

Take the strip in #1 and its title, which contains the demonstrative this. If the this is understood as referring only to the title text, then the (self-referential) title sentence is true: it’s not a comic strip. If the this is understood as referring to the strip the title is attached to, then the (other-referential) title sentence is false: that referent is indeed a comic strip.

If the title is understood to be part of a complex entity (as Ceci ne pas une pipe is part of Magritte’s painting) and the this is understood as referring to this complex entity, then the (other-referential) title sentence would appear to be true again: the complex entity is not a comic strip, though it has a comic strip as one of its two parts. But the classification of the complex entity could be argued; in other circumstances, we’re comfortable posting entities of category X with entities of category X as proper parts. If we take that position in this case, then the title sentence is false again.

So: no self-contradiction, but plenty of uneasy bafflement.

At the end of this posting, I’ll append a list of MD postings on this blog. Now on to other topics that have come up above: nominations of three-word oaths; the notion of an oath; Oath Inc.; the song and movie Three Little Words; some other, much racier, candidates for three-word oath status.

Some nominations of three-word oaths. A great many of the expressions suggested as oaths are conventionized, formulaic language of various types: quotations, catchphrases, proverbs, and the like. And most of these are imperatives (a very small sampling of the suggestions):

Take the cannoli, Duck and cover, Abandon all hope, Omit needless words

or are understood as imperative in force (though not in form):

To the Batcave!, This side up, When in Rome [with do as the Romans do truncated]

or implicate an instruction, advice, or command:

Resistance is futile [a declarative, implicating Do not resist]

A few suggestions are imperatives, but not formulaic:

Leave me alone, Just restart it

And a very few aren’t imperative in form or intent:

[declarative] Veni vidi vici

Some other non-imperative possibilities, not (yet) in Elizabeth’s corpus:

God will provide, You never know, Who can tell, I love you, Haste makes waste, Bros before hos, E pluribus unum, Ladies and gentlemen, Bacon and eggs, Words and music, Now or never, Primus inter pares, Everything in moderation

A few of the suggested oaths are “foul oaths”, exclamatory expressions that are obscene or profane, for instance:

Fuck this shit!

What is an oath? From NOAD2 for the noun oath:

1 a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior: they took an oath of allegiance to the king; a sworn declaration that one will tell the truth, especially in a court of law. 2 a profane or offensive expression used to express anger or other strong emotions.

The main part of sense 1 is the relevant one here. The point about oaths is that they’re a kind of promise: they are commitments on the part of the speaker to engage in future action or behavior, and thus contrast sharply with advice, instructions, and commands, all suggesting or imposing commitments on the part of the addressee(s) to engage in future action or behavior. Three-word oaths in this sense are not very numerous:

I will serve, It’s my job [implicating and I will do it]

Three-word oaths in the ‘sworn declaration’ sense are equally rare:

I do swear, On/Upon my word

At this point, we should ask where the request for oaths ultimately comes from, and what purpose it’s intended to serve. The first question is easy: Oath Inc. The second is more puzzling, but I’d guess that the company is casting about for a slogan, a really pithy one, like

Do you Yahoo!?, Fair and balanced, Don’t be evil, Where’s the beef?, Snap crackle pop, Just do it, Stronger than dirt, Wintergreen for President, Be what’s next, Kills bugs dead, I like Ike, No more tears, Finger lickin’ good, Taste the rainbow, Imagination at work, Mmm Mmm good

Oath Inc. From Wikipedia:

Oath Inc. (also officially dubbed Verizon Digital Network) is a subsidiary of Verizon Communications’ Media and Telematics division, that will serve as the parent company of its content sub-divisions AOL and Yahoo!.

… AOL and Yahoo will maintain their respective brands following the completion of the transaction.

The Oath name is meant to convey the parent company’s commitment to the media business.

All this is relevant because Elizabeth, who sent out the original request for three-word oaths, works for Yahoo!

So I’m guessing that the new company wants three-word slogans that express commitment to the media business. Asking for punchy three-word oaths seems to net you a lot of imperatives about all manner of things not especially connected to the media business — but it’s kind of fun.

(Apparently, there’s nothing we can do about the new company’s name; it is what it is. But it doesn’t conjure up much in the way of imagery, and I know from experience that unless you say the name very slowly and clearly, people are inclined to think you’ve said the company’s named Oaf.

Well, I don’t know what I’d do onomastically with a conglomerate of Verizon, Yahoo!, and AOL, so maybe I should hold my tongue.)

Three Little Words, the song and the movie. The three-word requirement led me immediately, of course, to the song and the movie that it gave its name to:

On the song, from Wikipedia:

“Three Little Words” is a popular song with music by Harry Ruby and lyrics by Bert Kalmar, published in 1930.

The Rhythm Boys (including Bing Crosby), accompanied by the Duke Ellington orchestra, recorded it on August 26, 1930 and it enjoyed great success. Their version was used in the 1930 Amos ‘n’ Andy film Check and Double Check, with orchestra members miming to it. The film was co-written by Kalmar and Ruby along with J. Walter Ruben. The song also figured prominently in the film Three Little Words, a 1950 biopic about Kalmar and Ruby.

You can listen to the Ellington/Crosby recording here. The crucial lines:

Three little words
Eight little letters
Which simply mean I love you

On the movie, from Wikipedia:


Three Little Words is a 1950 American musical film biography of the Tin Pan Alley songwriting partnership of Kalmar and Ruby and stars Fred Astaire as lyricist Bert Kalmar, Red Skelton as composer Harry Ruby, along with Vera-Ellen and Arlene Dahl as their wives, with Debbie Reynolds in a small but notable role as singer Helen Kane.

… In this closing scene, Astaire and Skelton perform a medley of most of the songs featured in the film, ending with “Three Little Words” – Kalmar having finally found a suitable lyric for Ruby’s melody, a running gag throughout most of the film.

(A tremendously enjoyable musical.)

Three-word sex talk. Long ago, my recollections of the movie (which I saw as a child, when it came out) combined with my (later) interests in gay porn and in language to inspire me to collect a small inventory of three-word formulaic expressions in mansex talk: Suck my cock, Fuck me harder, Fill me up, Eat my ass, etc. (plus some that are two-word imperatives plus an address term: Eat dick, faggot! and the like). The idea was that these are the three little words that would move a queer.

I seem to have lost the file, but you surely get the idea. Mostly punchy imperatives, so they’d fit in with the expressions people have been offering to Elizabeth, though Oath Inc. would be appalled at them as slogans. Well, how about Eat our words!?

Inventory of MD postings. On this blog, about the Magrittean disavowal:

on 7/19/12, “Magritte”

on 10/8/13, “Speech balloons in Dingburg”

on 12/13/13, “Friday cartoons”

on 3/11/15, “Magritte goes on”

on 3/29/15, “This is not a Ding Dong”

on 7/1/16, “Big and cool and tangentially surreal”

on 2/15/17, “The news for penguins, and, oh yes, penises”

on 2/19/17, “Art of the penis”

on 2/27/17, “Two Ztoons on language use”

on 6/3/17, “This is not a president”


2 Responses to “More Magrittean disavowals”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I took the Zippy title to be at least in part a suggestion that the strip — like its successors this week — is not in the strictest sense a “comic strip”, despite its form (and, in my case, its appearance on the “comics” page of my newspaper); it’s really more of a historical essay, with comic-like illustrations.

  2. TommyBoy Says:

    As we sometimes (used to?) say in Australia: “Fuckin’ oath!” to assert the truth of something just said. Could assume a broader meaning with respect to new media companies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: