She got pinched in the As … tor Bar

A celebrated example of word breaking or splitting (from the 1959 movie High Society), giving a joke turning on an ambiguity in how the the first part of the split word is to be understood: on its own, giving the off-color She got pinched in the ass; or as merely the first part of the split word, giving the less risqué She got pinched in the Astor Bar (in one or another sense of pinched).

Then I note that the first understanding has the in of body location, the second the in of event location — a distinction I’ve explored in three previous postings. This is the fourth, with some illumination in it, I think.

(Hat tip to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, who noted the connection between the As … tor Bar joke and the different lypes of locatives.)

One version of the text, from my 7/28/10 posting “Splitting up: the enjambment connection”:

from Cole Porter’s song “Well, Did you Evah”, from the movie High Society (1959) …

MIKE [played by Frank Sinatra]: Have you heard that Mimsie Starr,
DEXTER [played by Bing Crosby]: What now?
MIKE: She got pinched in the As [pause] tor Bar.

In a clip from the movie:


The joke depends on your recognizing Astor Bar as a conventional proper name; otherwise, the tor Bar continuation doesn’t make sense. I now discover that I can’t assume that my readers will know about the magificent Astor Hotel in New York City’s Midtown and its famous Astor Bar, since the hotel was demolished in 1967. In an appendix to this posting, I’ll tell some of that story.

But now:

Body-location and event-location. From my 4/5/19 posting “Science, Charity, and adverbial ambiguity”, starting with this joke exchange:

(Patient) I broke my leg in three places — (Doctor) Then don’t go to those places


From that posting, with summaries of what went before:

In my 2/27/19 posting “Body-location, event-location”, two kinds of location adverbials: those locating something at a place on the body, those placing some event in a locale. With an extensive follow-up in the 3/5/19 posting “Another 100k spams”, where (among other things) I reported on a search for a language that overtly differentiated the two kinds of location, via distinct inflectional morphology or adpositions or lexical pro-forms (demonstratives of the here/there sort, interrogatives like where in I know where she got hurt, relativizers like where in the place where she got hurt).

This search provoked some really interesting discussion (summarized in the follow-up posting), but nothing of the sort I was looking for. From which you might entertain the idea that the body-location / event-location distinction is simply not a matter of any kind of lexical ambiguity, but is entirely a matter of syntactic relations (and, possibly, constituent structure) — with the body-location adverbials as V-modifiers and the event-location adverbials as VP-modifiers, as suggested in my 3/8/16 posting “Where?”…

That would make it just another species of attachment ambiguity: Low Attachment (the V-modifier) vs. High Attachment (the VP-modifier), as in [a] One Big Happy cartoon I looked at in the 5/16/15 posting “An attachment problem”, on “I feel like smashing him over the head with a guitar again””

… The idea would then be that in [the cartoon joke] the difference in attachment corresponds to a difference in kind of location. Producing a strong sense of difference in lexical meaning.

I was still inclined to the idea that there were two kinds of locatives, which you might expect to be marked by different cases in some languages (what about Finnish, I wondered, with its many cases for expressing location and motion?) or by different adpositions (many languages have rich assortments of adpositions that could be deployed for this purpose) or by different lexical items (different lexemes for the two senses of demonstratives like there and interrogatives like where, or for that matter, nouns like place in #2).

Somehow, on my third try on the Linguistic Typology mailing list, examples of just the sort I was looking for rolled in. (I must have framed my query badly in the first two tries.).

Cases (and nouns). First, quite straightforwardly, in Finnish case selection. From Jussi Ylikoski, a contrast between elative case for body locatives and inessive case for event locatives, with the suggestion that there might be related distinction in the nouns for ‘place’. Ylikoski carefully glossed and aligned his examples, so I’m reproducing his posting photographically:


About Ylikoski, from his Univ. of Oulu website:

I am a linguist. From July 2017, I am a Professor of Saami language at the Giellagas Institute for Saami Studies at the University of Oulu, Finland. I am also an Adjunct Professor at the Sámi University of Applied Sciences in Guovdageaidnu, Norway.

I am mainly a Uralicist (Finno-Ugricist) who has specialized in the Saami branch of the Uralic language family, and I am also well acquainted with my mother tongue, Finnish. Previously, I have also worked at the Universities of Turku and Helsinki, and most recently at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway.

In the past years, my research has concentrated on Saami languages, especially North Saami. In addition to Saami, I have also done research on other Uralic (Finno-Ugric) languages, especially Finnic, Permic and Mari, most of which are spoken in the northernmost parts of Europe. My current interests include functions and origins of case suffixes and adpositions in Saami, Finnic and other Uralic languages, as well as some of the peculiarities of Saami inflectional and derivational morphology – and the grammars of these languages in general.

Adpositions. The facts are moderately complex, but they come from a very familiar language, namely French. From the French Africanist Guillaume Segerer, in the Linguistic Typology list:

“I broke my leg in three places” can be translated as “je me suis cassé la jambe en trois endroits” (1sgSUB 1sgOBJ Aux broke the leg in three places). But actually, this translation may only be understood as body-location. If I were to mean event-location, I would have to use the preposition “dans” (= in) instead of “en” (= in). Hence “je me suis cassé la jambe dans trois endroits”. This last sentence doesn’t sound very natural though, and it would be better to specify “dans trois endroits différents” (= in three different places). Finally, an alternate preposition with also a body-location reading would be “à” (= at) : “Je me suis cassé la jambe à trois endroits (différents)” cannot have an event-location reading.

On his website, Segerer says of himself:

Currently living in Paris and Chaumot, France. Researcher in Linguistics (CNRS, LLACAN [la laboratoire Langage, Langues et Cultures d’Afrique]

No doubt there are many other languages with distinctions in case, adpositions, or lexical items. The ambiguity seems to be widespread in German: the joke in #2 carries through in German and Dutch, and on the Linguistic Typology list, Hartmut Haberland of Roskilde Univ. in Denmark reported it in a Danish joke:

There is a joke I have heard often In Denmark:

“I get my hair cut the same place as Prince Henrik.” (Queen Margrethe’s Prince consort who died recently)

“Where would that be?”

“On the top of my head.”

In English the preposition in is neutral as between the body-locative and event-locative senses. And the noun place is correspondingly neutral as between the body-location  and event-location senses — though NOAD flirts with the possibility that the different undertandings of place are different senses, when it gives the following as a subsense of the noun:

a particular point on a larger surface or in a larger object or area: he lashed out and cut the policeman’s hand in three places.

This in contrast to the general sense for the noun:

a particular position or point in space

which would be used, in particular, to refer to where some event occurs.

The possibility that English place might be ambiguous inspired LT participant Larry Hyman to suggest that the joke in #2 (and other variants) is in fact parallel to straightforward groan-inducing noun puns, in particular:

This reminds me of Victor Borge’s famous line that he was next going to play a piece that Mozart wrote in three flats. Why in three flats? Because he had to move twice [while he was writing the piece, of course; the total number of flats Mozart lived in was hugely greater than three].

That’s musical flat vs. residential flat. An ambiguity, not at all a subtle one.

A thoroughly irrelevant digression. Mozart and the flats he lived in reminded me of a charming (and informative) children’s book about Beethoven and the apartments he lived in: The 39 Apartments of Ludwig Van Beethoven (2006) by Jonah Winter, illustrated by New Yorker artist Barry Blitt. The publisher’s description:


How hard is it to move 5 legless pianos 39 times?
Beethoven owned five legless pianos and composed great works on the floor. His first apartment was in the center of Vienna’s theater district… but he forgot to pay rent, so he had to move. (And it’s very hard to move a piano. Even harder to move five). Beethoven’s next apartment was in a dangerous part of town… so he moved, and the pianos followed on a series of pulleys. Then came an apartment with a view of the Danube (but he made too much noise and the neighbors complained), followed by an attic apartment (where he made even MORE of a ruckus), and so Beethoven moved again and again. Each time, pianos were bought, left behind, transported on pulleys, slides, and by movers, all so that gifted Beethoven could compose great works of music for the world.

Appendix: the Astor Hotel. From Wikipedia:

(#5) The Astor Hotel in 1908

Hotel Astor was a hotel located in the Times Square area of Manhattan, New York City, in operation from 1904 through 1967. The former site of the hotel, the block bounded by Broadway, Astor Plaza, West 44th Street, and West 45th Street, is now occupied by the high-rise 54-story office tower One Astor Plaza.

With its elaborately decorated public rooms and its roof garden, the Astor Hotel was perceived as the successor to the Astor family’s Waldorf-Astoria on 34th Street. William C. Muschenheim and his brother, Frederick A. Muschenheim conceived plans for the grand hotel in 1900. The area was then known as Longacre Square and stood beyond the fringe of metropolitan life, the center of New York’s carriage-building trade. The Muschenheim brothers became the proprietors for absentee landlord William Waldorf Astor, from whom they leased the land. The hotel opened on September 9, 1904.

… Architects Clinton & Russell … developed a very Parisian “Beaux Arts” style completed with green-copper mansard roof. Its eleven stories contained 1000 guest rooms, with two more levels underground for its extensive “backstage” functions, such as the wine cellar.

The Astor was an important element in the growth of Times Square and its character as an entertainment center. In 1904, New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs moved his newspaper’s operations to a new tower on 42nd Street in the middle of Longacre Square, and Ochs persuaded Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. to build a subway station there and rename it Times Square. The Theater District would soon occupy magnificent new auditoriums along Forty-second Street, and electric lighting transformed this strip of Broadway into the “Great White Way”.

Hotel Astor’s success triggered the construction of the nearby Knickerbocker Hotel by other members of the Astor family two years later, although that property became commercial office space within a few years. The Astor set the pattern for “a new species of popular hotels that soon clustered around Times Square, vast amusement palaces that catered to crowds with scenographic interiors that mirrored the theatricality of the Great White Way.”

… Within its restrained exterior, the Astor featured a long list of elaborately themed ballrooms and exotic restaurants: the Old New York lobby, the American Indian Grill Room decorated with artifacts collected with the help of the American Museum of Natural History, a Flemish smoking room, a Pompeiian billiard room, the Hunt Room decorated in sixteenth century German Renaissance style, and many other features.

… Beginning in the 1910s, the Astor Bar acquired a reputation as a gay meeting place. During World War II, the Astor Bar was one of three American hotel bars “world famous for their wartime ambience”, alongside the Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, and the men’s bar at the Los Angeles Biltmore. Unlike the flamboyant late-night scenes at the automats, gay patrons at the Astor Bar were welcomed, allotted an entire side of the oval bar, and expected to be discreet (by the standards of the time). Thus “the Astor maintained its public reputation as an eminently respectable Times Square rendezvous, while its reputation as a gay rendezvous and pickup bar assumed legendary proportions.”

The only photo of the Astor Bar I can find is from 1909 — nothing from the 40s through the 60s, when it was definitely a gay spot. (A Princeton friend of mine occasionally picked up older men there; it was an elegant place and quite safe.)

The bar was further immortalized in Cole Porter’s song “Well, Did You Evah!”, which includes the line, “Have you heard that Mimsie Starr / Just got pinched in the Astor Bar?” The ribald tune “She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor” explored a similar theme.

From Wikipedia:

“She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor” is a 1939 comic song by Don Raye and Hughie Prince and was recorded by Dick Robertson, Pearl Bailey and the British bandleader and clarinetist Harry Roy. … It was banned by the BBC in the same year, and censured by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 1940.

The song begins with a spoken introduction and tells a story about a young woman losing something at the Hotel Astor. By use of double entendre and the repeated refrain, “But she had to go and lose it at the Astor,” the listener is led to believe that the song is about her losing her virginity to one of the hotel staff until the very end when it is revealed that what she had in fact lost was her sable cape.


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