A reading

Posted on Facebook, this Peter Steiner cartoon from 2016:

(#1) From a 1/28/16 posting on Steiner’s blog

The humor turns on an ambiguity of the verb read, and also on a specialization of the derived nominal reading to a very culture-specific event.

(Then some words on the artist, who now has a Page on this blog.)

Extracts from NOAD:

verb read: 1 [a – ‘silent reading, reading to oneself”] look at and comprehend the meaning of (written or printed matter) by mentally interpreting the characters or symbols of which it is composed … [c – ‘reading aloud, out loud’] speak (the written or printed matter that one is reading) aloud, typically to another person …

noun reading: 1 [a] the action or skill of reading written or printed matter silently or aloud … [c] [usually with adjective] knowledge of literature: a man of wide reading. … 2 [a – the specialized event N] an occasion at which poetry or other pieces of literature are read aloud to an audience. [b] a piece of literature or passage of scripture read aloud to a group of people: readings from the Bible. 3 an interpretation: feminist readings of Goethe | his reading of the situation was justified

1c is the relevant sense of read, 2a the relevant sense of reading. In fact, there are several types of public events that fall under the heading of readings. In an author reading, illustrated in #1, an author reads (out loud, of course) selections from their work (in a book store, library, or cultural center), perhaps adding brief side comments; then entertains questions from the audience; and (frequently) signs copies of books for members of the audience. The event is part cultural performance, part sales pitch.

Peter Steiner. From Wikipedia:

Peter Steiner is an American cartoonist, painter and novelist, best known for a 1993 cartoon published by The New Yorker which prompted the adage “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” He is also a novelist who has published three crime novels.

Steiner has contributed cartoons and other material to The New Yorker since 1979.

His cartoon captioned ‘On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog’ is the most reproduced cartoon from The New Yorker. Steiner is also well known for his daily cartoons on contemporary events for the Washington Times, which he created for over 20 years, starting in 1983. One selection of these cartoons, titled Peter Steiner Cartoons I didn’t Bite the Man I Bit the Office [one dog to another, about a mailman], was published in 1994. For several years in the late 1990s and early 2000s he also made cartoons for The Weekly Standard.

Steiner has published four novels, all featuring a former CIA agent named Louis Morgon who has retired to the Loire Valley in France. Of his 2010 novel The Terrorist, The New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio wrote that “While it can’t be said that any of [the plot] is the least bit plausible, Steiner presents us with a reassuring fantasy world in which rash youths bow to the wisdom of their elders, terrorists abort their missions out of compassion for their human targets and the innocent victims of egregious acts of cruelty find it in their hearts to forgive.”

Specifically about the Internet dog cartoon:


“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” is an adage and meme about Internet anonymity which began as a cartoon caption by Peter Steiner and published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993. The cartoon features two dogs: one sitting on a chair in front of a computer, speaking the caption to a second dog sitting on the floor listening to the first. As of 2011, the panel was the most reproduced cartoon from The New Yorker, and Steiner had earned over US$50,000 from its reprinting.

… The cartoon symbolizes an understanding of Internet privacy that stresses the ability of users to send and receive messages in general anonymity.

The cartoon seems not to have appeared on this blog before, but an amended version of it figures in a collage posted on AZBlogX: on 8/7/10, in “Linguistics, anyone?”, about (XXX-rated) collages on the theme “Have you thought about trying… LINGUISTICS?”, where it’s #8. The collage is a riff on (quite possibly anonymous) mansex, specifically fellatio; don’t go there if that wouldn’t suit you.

Bonus Steiner. Another one that turns on ambiguity. From the 5/3/93 New Yorker:


The original reference is to a car accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in some small number of seconds. (I don’t know the circumstances in which this was first used as a measure of a car’s performance.) In any case, from 0 to 60 mph is very often truncated to from 0 to 60 —  an example of what I’ve called beheading, in which a head nominal is omissible, leaving a modifier (in this case, a numeral expression) to represent the whole NP.

Beheading can affect all sorts of head nominals, including (as in the cartoon) years. So the cartoon poignantly expresses the sense of a lifetime rapidly passing from birth to old age; suddenly, you’re 60. (I’m glossing over some important details here: it’s not just miles, but miles per hour, and not just years, but years old / of age.)

What head nominal (denoting a unit of measure) is to be supplied in understanding any particular beheaded expression is determined from context: miles in one context (having to do with car performance, for example), years in another (having to do with aging, for example), pounds in still another (having to do with dieting), etc.

One Response to “A reading”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    In the last few years I’ve noticed car ads offering “0 for 60”, by which they mean lease or purchase terms with no interest for 5 years (60 months), with a presumably deliberate echo of “0 to 60”.

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