Choosing the words

Two One Big Happy cartoons in which young Ruthie confronts word choices: once in the name of a food, which is yucky or not, depending on what you call it; and once in the telling of a joke you know is incredibly funny, but you have to get all the right names of things in it:

Food with yucky names. The cartoon for 6/21:


Unfamiliar, foreign-sounding name suggests a strangely flavored food made of who knows what monstrous ingredients, so ugh yuck phooey. Familiar name good.

From my 12/4/17 posting “I say it sounds yucky and I say the hell with it”, a Calvin and Hobbes in which Calvin similarly rebels:


Food aversions have many bases: appearance, taste, smell, texture, intensity of flavor, novelty, objections to ingredients (would you eat Bambi? Thumper? Fido? Fluffy? Porky? Sam the Clam?, Charlie the Tuna?), allergic reactions, unpleasant previous experiences — and aversion to the name, as with Calvin.

(Unfotunately, tortellini has no everyday name.)

Meanwhile, zabaione / zabaglione has made only a cameo appearance on this blog, thanks entirely to its having a name beginning with Z. From my 10/30/12 posting “At the sign of the Z”:

Now, as a Z person, I’m primed to notice words with Z in them, especially words beginning with Z, For instance, foods, not just zabster zalad, but also:

zabaglione (a custard dessert), Zinfandel wine, zito (a pasta), the Zombie cocktail, zucchini (the vegetable), zuppa inglese (a trifle-like dessert), zwieback (a toasted cracker)

From Wikipedia:

(#3) Mixed berries and zabaglione from the Driscoll’s Berries site

Zabaione or zabaglione is an Italian dessert, or sometimes a beverage, made with egg yolks, sugar, and a sweet wine (usually Moscato d’Asti or Marsala wine). Some versions of the recipe incorporate spirits such as cognac. The dessert version is a light custard, whipped to incorporate a large amount of air. Since the 1960s, in restaurants in areas of the United States with large Italian populations, zabaione is usually served with strawberries, blueberries, peaches, etc. in a champagne coupe. In France, it is called sabayon, while its Italian name is zabaione or zabaglione (or zabajone, an archaic spelling).

Telling a joke. The OBH cartoon for 6/22:

(#4) Note: There seems to be no actual joke involving an outhouse, a couch potato, and a mother-in-law (though each of these things is the subject of a number of jokes); readers might enjoy trying to contrive one

Ruthie is certain it’s uproariously funny — presumably, from the laughs she’s witnessed other people getting from telling the joke — but in fact she doesn’t know why. She’s on the learning curve for joke-telling, but not yet at its peak. From my 3/2/15 posting “Learning to tell jokes”


Part of acquiring a language is acquiring a large assortment of social routines using that language — including joke patterns. Linguists studying conversation have looked at the acquisition of a number of different joke types, for example knock-knock jokes, where they see the gradual unfolding of the abilities involved in producing and appreciating jokes. For instance, many jokes turn on puns, so that a child has to learn that exact wording can be crucial to the joke; paraphrase won’t do. But children often fail to appreciate that, while still understanding that laughter is called for at a certain point in the joke.

There’s the famous elephant-duck joke, which goes:

Joke-teller: How do you get down off an elephant?

Audience: I dunno.

Joke-teller: You don’t get down off an elephant, you get down off a duck! [Laughter]

The word down (ambiguous as between an adverbial and a noun) is crucial here, but children sometimes fail to appreciate that, which leads to several forms of misfiring. The adverbial is omissible, so that some children omit down throughout: “How do you get off an elephant? … you get off a duck!” [Laughter nevertheless]

Others omit it only in certain places, presumably because three occurrences of the word seems needlessly repetitious.

Ruthie in this OBH paraphrases the punchline she’s heard (“because they couldn’t keep their trunks up”), which turns on the ambiguity of the noun trunks, referring either to bathing trunks or to the elephantine body-part. Unfortunately, Ruthie’s version (“because their britches kept falling down”) loses the body-part sense, but she still thinks it’s funny. Not so her older brother.

And in #4 above, Ruthie might have gotten the wording right — we don’t know, because we don’t see her version of the (purported) joke –but in any case she doesn’t understand what makes the joke work (and so risks missing a crucial element in its telling). But it’s really really funny, take her word for it.

One Response to “Choosing the words”

  1. Learning culture | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] my 7/19/19 posting “Choosing the words”, on two OBH cartoons about learning to tell […]

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