Wok it to the golden Lab for analysis, har-de-har-har

3 x 3: three cartoons of linguistic interest for the 3rd of December: a Dave Blazek Loose Parts with merged phonemes; a Wayno/Piraro Bizarro with an ambiguity; and a Zits with an onomatopoeia.

Blazek. Loose Parts of 6/16/16: walk vs. wok, in the punning sleep-wokking ‘stir-frying in one’s sleep’ (in pronunciation, a perfect or imperfect pun, depending on whether or not you merge two low back vowel phonemes):


(Note: the expectant cat in the cartoon is an especially nice touch.)

On the merger, from Wikipedia:

The cot–caught merger (also known as the low back merger or the LOT–THOUGHT merger) is a phonemic merger, occurring in some dialects of the English language, between the phonemes that are conventionally represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as  /ɔː/ (which is usually spelled with au, aw, al or ough as in caught and hawk) and /ɒ/ (which is usually spelled with o as in cot and hock). In varieties in which the merger has taken place, including a few in the British Isles and many in North America, what were historically two separate phonemes have fallen together into a single sound, so that caught and cot are pronounced identically.

The merger is the source of jokes, including those incorporated in cartoons. See, for example, my 2/25/15 posting “fraug”, on a Rhymes With Orange cartoon with a prince saying “I feel like a fraug”:

Presumably Hilary Price’s intention was that the spelling FRAUG, pronounced [frɔ:ɡ], should represent a combination of FROG — pronounced [frɑ:ɡ] or [frɔ:ɡ], depending on your variety of American English — and FRAUD, pronounced [frɔ:d] for many American speakers, but [frɑ:d] for American speakers who level [ɔ:] and [ɑ:] in favor of the latter (the “COT-CAUGHT merger”: both these words are pronounced [kɑ:t], DAWN and DON are both [dɑ:n], and SHAW and SHAH are both [ʃɑ:]).

[Addendum: an earlier posting on frog and fraud has a Discover Card commercial that plays on a confusion between the two.]

The merger is also the source of some cross-dialect misfit, as in my 5/23/18 posting “The art class”, about

the phenomenon of phonemic hearing: speakers who have a phonemic distinction between /a/ in cot and /ɔ/ in caught are (keenly) attuned to, attentive to, the acoustic details that distinguish the two for them, but the many American speakers for whom the phonemes have merged don’t get it at all, so from the [point of view] of cot-caught speakers like me, they seem to be hearing-impaired (the effect is very striking).

Bizarro. For today: a pun on lab ‘laboratory’ vs. Lab ‘Labrador (retriever)’, a breed of dog.

(#2) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 6 in this strip — see this Page.)

/læb/ can refer to ‘a room or building equipped for scientific experiments, research, or teaching, or for the manufacture of drugs or chemicals’ (NOAD), by clipping of the word laboraory; or to ‘a retriever of a breed that predominantly has a black or yellow coat, widely used as a gun dog or as a guide for a blind person’ (NOAD), as a clipping of the breed name Labrador, itself a truncation by beheading of the breed name Labrador retriever, whose first element is the placename Labrador.

Now, the thing about abbreviations, of all kinds (clippings and truncations included) is that they eliminate material (and the information in that material), so leading to ambiguities — on top of the huge number of ambiguities already in the language. You buy some brevity at the cost of some clarity — a price that we’re all willing to pay if we can use context, background knowledge, and real-world plausibility to disambiguate the abbreviations. (In #2, it is of course real-world absurd that a police department would use a Labrador retriever to analyze evidence.)

(On brevity-clarity tradeoffs, see the Page on this blog on the topic.)

Zits. For today: the onomatopoetic har-dee-har-har, a conventional expression representing a sarcastic laugh (cf. boo-hoo):


OED3 (June 2015) has it in hand:

har de harint. (and n.) [with many spelling variants, and also with reduplication of the final element, as above; hardy-har-har is a common variant]

Etymology: Alteration of ha ha int.
orig. U.S. Representing laughter, chiefly used sarcastically as a mirthless or disparaging response to a remark intended to be funny or witty. Also as n.and attributive. [1st cite 1955 from The Honeymooners: I’m afraid I won’t get Norton’s vote? Har de har har har!]

Yes, it apparently starts with Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners. Here he is doing an elaborate rendition, from an episode different from the one cited in the OED:


Younger people are inclined to believe that the source of the expression is the Hanna-Barbera tv animation Lippy the Lion — but Ralph Cramden got there first. On the cartoon, from Wikipedia:


Lippy the Lion & Hardy Har Har is an animated television series [beginning in 1962 and continuing with various distributors up to the present] produced by Hanna-Barbera and aired as a part of The Hanna-Barbera New Cartoon Series starring the animated anthropomorphic lion and hyena pair in a series of goofy misadventures. Lippy, a lion wears a tattered top hat and vest while Hardy, a hyena wears a porkpie hat and bow tie. Lippy’s voice, patterned after comic Joe E. Brown, is identical to that of Peter Potamus (both provided by Daws Butler). Hardy Har Har’s name is ironic, as it suggests the sound of laughter associated with a hyena …  and Hardy is an eternal pessimist.

2 Responses to “Wok it to the golden Lab for analysis, har-de-har-har”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    I needed to go to the “Secret Symbols” page as people on the Style Invitational Group on FB were wondering about the eye and pie in a Bizarro cartoon. I followed your link and, sadly, it’s expired. The new link is here.

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