Revisiting 7: NL:W

Yesterday, a posting on the story of a joke (Not Lady: Wife, NL:W for short) whose canonical form is

A: Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
B: That was no lady; that was my wife.

The vector for the spread of the joke seems to have been the vaudeville team Weber & Fields, who allegedly used it in their stage routines over a century ago. But I found no first-hand reports, so I appealed to the hounds of ADS-L for attestations. This netted a clear occurrence from 1859, but embedded in a long and complex back story (though again with the stage German accent of W&F). And an earlier British antecedent.

Then Larry Horn chimed in with some astute observations on the semantics and pragmatics of NL:W.

All will be reproduced here.

NL:W in Cincinnati (1859). Unearthed by both Peter Reitan and Quote Investigator Garson O’Toole: Cincinnati (OH) Daily Press, 13 Dec 1859, p. 4. Reitan supplied an actual clipping:


By the end of the 19th century, the story had been reduced to a snappy two-line exchange, with no set-up.

It’s significant that the 1859 tale appeared in a Cincinnati tale and concerned German immigrants in New York City. At the time, both cities were major centers of recent German settlement.

From Wikipedia on Over the Rhine:

The revolutions of 1848 in the German states brought thousands of German refugees to the United States. In Cincinnati they settled on the outskirts of the city, north of Miami and Erie Canal [known ocally as the “Rhine”] where there was an abundance of cheap rental units. Until the city annexed the land in 1849 the city’s northern border was inside this immigrant area. The border road was called Liberty Street because it separated the city from the outlying land, called “Northern Liberties,” which was not subject to municipal law. Thus along with immigrants it attracted a concentration of bootleggers, saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, brothels, and others who were not tolerated in the city of Cincinnati.

In 1850 approximately 63% of Over-the-Rhine’s population consisted of immigrants from German states, including Prussia, Bavaria, and Saxony. The neighborhood soon took on a “German” character influenced by its majority of residents. The new immigrants brought a variety of customs, habits, attitudes, and dialects of the German language. Their range of religions, occupations, and classes characterized the Over-the-Rhine German community for the rest of the century.

And from Wikipedia on Little Germany:

Little Germany, known in German as Kleindeutschland and Deutschländle and called Dutchtown by contemporary non-Germans, was a German immigrant neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. The neighborhood’s ethnic cohesion began to decline in the late 19th century from the population dynamics of non-German immigrants settling in the area, and the loss of second-generation families to other German-American communities.

… Beginning in the 1840s, large numbers of German immigrants entering the United States provided a constant population influx for Little Germany. In the 1850s alone, 800,000 Germans passed through New York. By 1855 New York had the third largest German population of any city in the world, outranked only by Berlin and Vienna. The German immigrants differed from others in that they usually were educated and had marketable skills in crafts. More than half of the era’s bakers and cabinet makers were Germans or of German origin, and many Germans also worked in the construction business.

Then from Reitan on a possible 1830 precursor:

The Arkansas Times, of Little Rock Arkansas, published a possible precursor of the joke on July 7, 1830.  The anecdote is presented as being an actual comment made to Lord Chesterfield during a “public levee of the court of St. James.”  But instead of saying “that is no lady, she is my wife”, he says of a woman pointed out to him as being particularly ugly, “that lady, sir, is my wife.”

Some caution is requisite in passing our opinion upon strangers; a caution, however, which few of us adopt. At a public levee of the court of St. James, a gentleman said to Lord Chesterfield – pray, my Lord, who is that tall, awkward woman yonder? That lady, sir – replied Lord Chesterfield, is – my sister. The gentleman reddened with confusion, and stammerd out – no, no, my Lord, I beg pardon: I mean that very ugly woman, who stands next the Queen. That lady, sir – answered Lord Chesterfield, calmly – that lady, sir, is – my wife.

The term lady is applied to both women in the story, and the story can easily be understood as a faux pas on the part of the “gentleman” commenting on the appearance of women at the Court of St. James, rather than as a slur on wives.

Larry Horn on the analysis of NL:W. From ADS-L:

One point on the old joke, not related to its origin:

(On my unpacking of the joke, B isn’t intending to insult his wife — or is pretending not to be intending to do so, if he really does intend the “male put-down of wives” AMZ refers to — even though A, and we, would naturally take him to be doing just that.)

While Arnold is on target in focusing on the joke’s exploitation of the “polite” feature of “lady”, there’s something else going on. A number of references to the exchange, often citing Rodney Dangerfield, actually offer it in the (misremembered?) version as

A: “Who was that woman I saw you with last night?”
B: “That was no woman, that was my wife.”

— where the punchline (entailing that my wife is “no woman”) doesn’t involve the politeness dimension — cf. e.g. here. The joke is perhaps a bit less effective (as well as a bit less frequently told) this way, but it still works on another level, because in both versions there’s a plausible sense in which A’s referring to (as it happens) Mrs. B is implicating (intending to suggest) that the lady/woman in question is *not* B’s wife.  This involves a classic pragmatic deduction that Grice himself described as follows:

Anyone who uses a sentence of the form X is meeting a woman this evening would normally implicate that the person to be met was someone other than X’s wife, mother, sister, or perhaps even close platonic friend…When someone, by using the form of expression an X, implicates that the X does not belong to or is not otherwise closely connected with some identifiable person, the implicature is present because the speaker has failed to be specific in a way in which he might have been expected to be specific.
(H. P. Grice, “Logic and conversation” [1967], in Studies in the Way of Words pp. 37-8)

So B, knowing his wife’s identity, would have implicated in saying “I’m meeting a woman tonight” that the woman is not his wife, while all A implicates in asking B the question “Who was that lady/woman I saw you with last night”, is that for all A knows, she’s not B’s wife (or mother, or sister,…).

B’s wife is a woman (or even a lady), but he wouldn’t ordinarily describe her as “a woman” or “a lady”, since to do so is less informative, just as I wouldn’t normally call a hot day a warm one. To belabor the point, B’s intends his response to be taken as “That was no [person I would describe as “a woman”/“a lady”], that was [a person I would describe as “my wife”]; the alternative reading turns the “innocent” response into a punchline.

Interestingly, the joke tends to disappear if B’s response is “That was not {a lady/a woman}, that was my wife”, which doesn’t allow B’s intended (or pseudo-intended) metalinguistic reading, but only the one on which B is saying something false, rude, or hostile.

I was not familiar with the version of the joke attributed above to Rodney Dangerfield, which strikes me as either very subtle (the reading Larry unpacks) or sledge-hammer misuxoristic (wives are not women, they’re not really human beings).

I suppose I should also mention the famous misuxoristic one-liner that was a Henny Youngman staple: “Take my wife — please.” Discussion in my 9/8/12 posting “Take my wife”.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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: