Amoeba humor

A classic Gary Larson cartoon, which came up on Pinterest this morning:


Pun time at the protist corral, playing on Anglicized Spanish adios, amigos ‘goodbye, friends’ (perhaps better in AmE: ‘so long, buddies’).

And then there’s this knock-knock joke (call it Amoeba Dumb) reproduced on a number of joke sites:

Knock, knock!
Who’s there?
Amoeba who?
Amoeba dumb, but I’m not crazy.

with a punch line that puns on the song line:

I may be dumb, but I’m not crazy

There are plenty of cartoons and jokes involving amoebas (including a number of other cartoons from Larson), but not all that many punning on the word amoeba, as here.

On amoebas. Some terminological background, starting with the noun protist ‘a member of the Protista’. Based on the proper noun Protista:

Biology a kingdom or large grouping that comprises mostly single-celled organisms such as the protozoa, simple algae and fungi, slime molds, and (formerly) the bacteria. They are now divided among up to thirty phyla, and some have both plant and animal characteristics. (from NOAD2)

And then from Wikipedia:

An amoeba (rarely spelled amœba, US English rarely spelled ameba; plural am(o)ebas or am(o)ebae), often called amoeboid, is a type of cell or organism which has the ability to alter its shape, primarily by extending and retracting pseudopods. Specifically, the amoeba moves by extending a pseudopod (a process known as “ballooning”), attaching it to the substrate and filling it with cytosol and releasing its rear portion from attachment to the substrate which results in the organism being propelled forward. Amoebas do not form a single taxonomic group; instead, they are found in every major lineage of eukaryotic organisms. Amoeboid cells occur not only among the protozoa, but also in fungi, algae, and animals.

Microbiologists often use the terms “amoeboid” and “amoeba” interchangeably for any organism that exhibits amoeboid movement.

… The best known amoeboid protists are the “Giant Amoebae” Chaos carolinense and Amoeba proteus, both of which are widely cultivated and studied in classrooms and laboratories.

(#2) Chaos carolinense

Other well known species include the so-called “brain-eating amoeba” Naegleria fowleri, the intestinal parasite Entamoeba histolytica, which causes amoebic dysentery, and the multicellular “social amoeba” or slime mould Dictyostelium discoideum.

The formula: I may be X, but I’m not Y. The knock-knock joke above puns on a specific quotation, from the chorus of the Rihanna song “Stupid in Love”:

This is stupid, I’m not stupid
Don’t talk to me, like I’m stupid
I still love you, but I just can’t do this
I may be dumb but I’m not stupid

From Wikipedia:

“Stupid in Love” is a song recorded by Barbadian singer Rihanna for her fourth studio album, Rated R (2009). The song was written by Shaffer Smith, Mikkel S. Eriksen and Tor Erik Hermansen, with production helmed by StarGate.

The “Stupid in Love” line is an instance of a formula

I may be X, but I’m not Y / but I’m no Y

where the speaker accepts the predication of X but not that of Y (usually because Y is further along on some scale of negative evaluation than X), as in these other instances of the formula:

The Offspring song “Self Esteem”: “I may be dumb, but I’m not a dweeb”

from the Monty Python “Village Idiots” sketch: “I may be an idiot, but I’m no fool” [where idiot is an occupational title in this context]

the character Wade Wilson/Deadpool in the movie Deadpool: “I may be super, but I’m no hero”

the Hank Moody character in Californication: “I may be easy, but I’m not sleazy”

the character Bishop in the movie Aliens: “I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid”

Any of these quotations could in principle serve as the basis for the punch line in a knock-knock joke, but the joke only works if the quotation is memorable and the joke-teller and their audience both know it. If you don’t know the lyrics to the songs in the show South Pacific, then this knock-knock joke won’t really work for you:

Knock, knock!
Who’s there?
Sam and Janet.
Sam and Janet who?
Sam and Janet Evening.

You gotta know “Some Enchanted Evening”.

As it happens, I didn’t know the “Stupid in Love” line, so the Amoeba Dumb knock-knock joke was intriguing to me, but not really successful (a Monty Python “Village Idiots” allusion Amoeban idiot, but… would have worked for me).

Still, Amoeba Dumb is intriguing, because of the contrast the “Stupid in Love” line draws between being dumb and being stupid.

Note: the discussion here applies only to speakers (primarily in North America) who have dumb as a near-synonym of stupid; the adjective dumb ‘unable or unwilling to speak’ is irrelevant here.

Though the adjectives dumb and stupid overlap considerably in their use, most speakers seem to agree that when they’re differentiated, stupid is further out on a scale of negative evaluation: stupid is ‘seriously dumb’ or is more reprehensible (some say that being dumb is just not knowing, while being stupid is not knowing plus not caring).

As a result, A is dumb but not stupid (said of a person A) is entirely comprehensible, but A is stupid but not dumb is at least puzzling, if not contradictory.

Compare the explicitly contradictory A is very dumb but not dumb and the explicitly contradictory A is both dumb and doesn’t care about that, but not dumb; similarly, A’s doing B is very dumb but not dumb (said of a person A and an act B) and A’s doing B is dumb and A doesn’t care about that, but it’s not dumb. And then consider the possibility that instead of dealing with scalar predication or conjoined predication, with their logical implications, we are dealing with something weaker than strict implication — with conventional implicature or lexical connotation.

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