The elephant and plum

Not Frog and Peach, but Elephant and Plum, in a kid joke as told by Ruthie in the One Big Happy strip from 2/22 (in my comics feed on 3/21):


Four things: kid jokes, of which the Elephant and Plum variant above is a particular clever example; the saying about elephants on which it depends; elephant jokes, of which the joke above is not the classic Elephant and Plum exemplar; and the ambiguity of “When did you laugh at it?”, which turns on the defining property of deictic elements like the interrogative when.

Kid jokes are high on absurdity; they’re often very silly. It strikes me that this makes the genre easier for kids, since there’s so much leeway in what they can get away with.

On the other hand, kid jokes can allow kids to display bits of knowledge, usually implicitly, as the one above does: getting the joke requires knowing the saying “An elephant never forgets” (which is unspoken).

The saying . From Gary Martin’s Phrase Finder site, posted by ESC on 11/25/00, a survey of sources on the saying:

AN ELEPHANT NEVER FORGETS – “First attested in the United States in ‘Blue Ridge’ by W. Martyn. The proverb is probably of Greek origin. The Greeks sometimes say, ‘The camel never forgets an injury,’ according to Burton Stevenson. ‘To have a memory like an elephant’ is used as a figure of speech.” From Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings … 1996).

A second reference adds to this and has an earlier citation date: “Said of someone with a prodigious memory, usually for slights and wrongs. It was not the memory of the elephant but that of the camel that was renowned amongst the Greeks long ago. A Greek proverb ran ‘Camels never forget an injury.’ Proverbial reference to the elephant’s memory is relatively recent. In ‘Reginald: Reginald on Besetting Sins’ , the camel is usurped by the elephant: ‘Women and elephants never forget an injury.’ The author, Saki, was no stranger to elephants having been born in Burma and lived there, and would have appreciated the intelligence of the animal. The working elephant memorises a large number of commands given by the mahout and recognizes many other animals and people, thus remembering both kindnesses and injuries. Since its life-span is 50 or 60 years these memories are long-lived. Usage: Usually said of a person who does not forget injuries, but an ‘elephantine memory’ could just be a good one.” From the “Dictionary of Proverbs and their Origins” by Linda and Roger Flavell (… 1997).

Elephant jokes and this elephant joke. From Wikipedia:

An elephant joke is a joke cycle, almost always an absurd riddle or conundrum and often a sequence of such, that involves an elephant. Elephant jokes were a fad in the 1960s, with many people constructing large numbers of them according to a set formula. Sometimes they involve parodies or puns.

… [History:] In 1960, L.M. Becker Co of Appleton, Wisconsin, released a set of 50 trading cards titled “Elephant Jokes”. They were recorded in mid-1962 in Texas, and gradually spread across the US, reaching California in early 1963. By July 1963, elephant jokes were ubiquitous and could be found in newspaper columns, and in Time and Seventeen magazines, with millions of people working to construct more jokes according to the same formula.

Both elephant jokes and Tom Swifties were in vogue in 1963, and were reported in the US national press. While Tom Swifties were marketed to literate adults and gradually fell out of fashion over subsequent decades, elephant jokes have lasted among younger audiences, circulating through generations of schoolchildren.

… [Structure:] Elephant jokes rely upon absurdity and incongruity for their humor, and a contrast with the normal presumptions of knowledge about elephants. … One key to the construction of an elephant joke is that the joke answers are somewhat appropriate if one merely overlooks the obvious absurdities inherent to the questions.

There are just so many ways in which an elephant is different from a plum that it seems absurd even to ask the question. (And then the answer! No inanimate object has a memory, so plums don’t forget, but then they don’t remember, either.)

As it happens, there is a classic silly Elephant and Plum joke, but it’s not about memory, it’s about color. The color resolution of the elephant/plum query appears in collection after collection of (mostly kid-directed) elephant jokes, in a variety of forms:

Q: How is an elephant different from a plum?

A: A plum is purple. / An elephant isn’t purple. / They’re both purple … except for the elephant. / An elephant is grey. / Their color.

Note: the purple elephant has taken on something of a life of its own, as an unexpected and remarkable object that can then serve various symbolic functions. In icon form, from the IconsDB site:


Deixis and interrogative when. In the last two panels of the OBH strip, Ruthie notices that her grandfather didn’t laugh at her excellent elephant joke, asks him about that, and he objects that yes, he did — about 50 years ago (which would be during the fashion for elephant jokes). Ruthie’s asking about when during their recent exchange he laughed at the joke, but his answer is about when during his lifetime he laughed at it. An ambiguity, or something like it. (Actually,  a lack of specification.)

The thing is, interrogative when (like interrogative where) is a deictic element, which crucially picks up its meaning from the context of use. When can be asking with reference to mere seconds around this context, or to geological eras around it, or anything in between; the participants in the conversation have to work that out. (Similarly, an appropriate answer to the question “Where are you?” could be anything from “Sitting at my computer” to “In the Northern Hemisphere”, or anywhere in between.)

(On deixis in linguistics, see my 12/28/20 posting “this” — titled with yet another deictic element.)

4 Responses to “The elephant and plum”

  1. RF Says:

    I thought at first that Ruthie’s punchline was some kind of reference to the phrase “I plumb forgot,” but I’m not sure that really works within the context of the strip. It does seem like there’s potential for a joke along those lines, though.

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