The pickle slicer joke The pickle slicer joke

On this blog, a Bob Richmond comment on my 7/29 posting “Many a pickle packs a pucker”, with an old dirty joke that turns on the line “I stuck my dick in the pickle slicer” — with Bob noting, “I’m sure Arnold can provide an appropriate grammatical analysis”. The hinge of the joke is a pun on pickle slicer, which is ambiguous between ‘a device for slicing pickles’ and ‘someone who slices pickles (esp. as a job)’. You don’t need a syntactician to tell you that, but what I can tell you is that this isn’t some isolated fact about the expression pickle slicer, but is part of a much larger pattern that a linguist like me can bring to explicit awareness for you, so that you can appreciate something of the system of English that you (in some sense) know, but only tacitly, implicitly.

As it happens, the phenomena at issue lie behind a parallel ambiguity example I sometimes trotted out in syntax classes, long ago: window washer, referring to someone who washes windows (again, esp. as a job); or to a device for washing windows, for instance a windshield wiper — and then it turns out that windshield wiper is itself ambiguous in the very same way, referring to a mechanism for wiping the windshield of a car clear of rain or clean of grime; or to a squeegee man (or more generally, a squeegee person), someone

who, using a washcloth and squeegee, wipes windshields of cars stopped in traffic, in exchange for money [AZ: well, typically, demanding money for this unsolicited service] (Wikipedia link)

(squeegee ‘a scraping implement with a rubber-edged blade set on a handle, typically used for cleaning windows’ (NOAD))

There are plenty more examples like these three; for today’s entertainment I’ll add just one: fish boner. referring to a machine for boning fish, like the one in #1 below; or to someone who bones fish (again, esp. as an occupation: photo of a professional fish boner in #2 below).

(#1) The Wunder Boner™ fish boner

(#2) From a job description for a fish filleter

(For fish boner, there are at least two other families of senses, instructive in that you can see how they fail to fit the pattern for the four examples on the table already: a boner ‘gaffe, stupid mistake’ that somehow involves fish or a fish; or various kinds of fish-related boners ‘erections of a penis’ — in a fish, triggered by fish, resembling a fish, etc.)

Why am I telling you this? My response to Bob Richmond’s hope that I would provide “an appropriate grammatical analysis” of the pickle slicer joke was quite abbreviated, assuming some technical concepts and terms from modern syntactic and semantic analysis and supposing that other content could be worked out from the context:

Ah, the Agentive (‘one who Vs Ns’) vs. Instrumental (‘thing that Vs Ns’) readings of N + V-er compounds. Great stuff.

But some readers found this entirely incomprehensible. So I’ll try to fill out my response, starting from the fact that

pickle slicer as a whole — also window washer, windshield wiper, and fish boneris a N, serving as the head element in larger phrases that function as subjects, objects of various kinds, in predicatives, and so on:

[My pickle slicer] needs a new flange belt. (in subject)

I met [this fascinating pickle slicer] through Tinder. (in direct object)

Terry was [a pickle slicer] for Cutie Cukes. (in predicative)

— then, pickle slicer — also window washer, windshield wiper, and fish boneris a two-word, compound N, with two N parts, modifier N1 (pickle) and head N2 (slicer)

— third, the N2 slicer — compare the N2s washer, wiper, and boner is of the form V-er, where the V denotes an activity (slicing) and the whole N2 denotes the central participant in this activity (the doer of the slicing)

— fourth, the N1 pickle — compare the N1s window, windshield, and fishdenotes an affected participant in this activity (which would be expressed syntactically, rather than morphologically, by some sort of object (slice pickles, wash windows, wipe (off) windshields, bone fish)

— fifth, the central participant in the slicing activity (the slicer) — similarly, in the washing, wiping, and boning activities — can be either a human agent (someone who slices) or an instrument (something that slices, typically under the control of a human agent), so N2 = V-er (slicer) is ambiguous between agent and instrument understandings, and that’s the ambiguity in the N1 + V-er compound (pickle slicer)

The larger point is that this agent vs. instrument ambiguity arises right out of a piece of the system of morphology in English, namely the productivity of N1 + V-er (pickle slicer) compounding and, by and large, its semantic transparency, complete with systematic ambiguity (‘person who OR thing that slices pickles’). The ambiguity is of course potential, since, often, only one of the two understandings is culturally relevant; for example:

— beard shaver will normally be understood as denoting an instrument, because we don’t have people who are specialists in shaving beards, but in context it can denote an agent: I came across a man trimming his goatee; the beard shaver was a tall fellow.

opera composer, on the other hand, will normally be understood as denoting an agent, because we don’t have devices for composing operas, but you can certainly imagine a context where it could denote an instrument: Monstrous AI, Inc. predicts that it will have an opera composer on the market by 2040.

Similarly with window washer and windshield wiper. The compound window washer will usually be understood agentively, because window washing is a reasonably common occupation, while window-washing machines are oddities. But the similar-looking compound windshield wiper will usually be understood instrumentally, because the devices are extraordinarily common, while windshield-wiping people are relatively rare.

So much for morphology; what about syntax? N2 = V-er is ambiguous between the participant roles of agent and instrument; there’s only one slot, as it were, to express these roles, so you have to choose. How does this work in syntax, where there’s much more flexibility in the complexity of combinations?

As in morphology, you can, if you wish, express only one of the roles, as subject:

Terry sliced the pickle in half. The workers boned the fish. (agent subject)

The Pickle-O-Matic sliced the pickle in half. The Fillet-O-Matic boned the fish. (instrument subject)

But if you want, you can express them both, and then then the agent gets to be the subject, with the instrument expressed adverbially:

Terry sliced the pickle in half with a Pickle-O-Matic. The workers boned the fish with a Fillet-O-Matic.

Similarly with a famous example from G. Lakoff (1968):

Seymour sliced the salami with a knife.

Which I now update with fishy alliteration:

Boris boned the bonito with a blade.

Final note: I’ve suppressed or downplayed as much technical conceptual and terminological apparatus as I can here, using ordinary language as much as possible, but you still need to have some background stuff and to be willing to fill some other stuff in from context.





9 Responses to “The pickle slicer joke The pickle slicer joke”

  1. Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

    I understood that quite well! Thanks for your work in explaining it.

    The pickle slicer joke will only work in a language like English that mostly lacks gender markers. In German der Gürkenschneider could indeed be either a man or a machine, but a female pickle slicer (which the joke requires) would have to be die Gürkenschneiderin, with obligatory gender markers fore and aft, totally spoiling the joke.

    • Robert Coren Says:

      Well actually, the joke does not require the person who slices pickles to be female.

      • Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

        Because “pickle slicer” in English doesn’t require a gender marker. In German it does. For the joke to work in German, the set-up lines would have to note that the man that got fired was gay. I think it would take a gay native German speaker to translate the joke effectively.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To Robert Coren: as I pointed out to Bob Richmond on Facebook, and will now hammer home more forcefully here.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To Bob Richmond replying to Robert Coren. Your response is just oppressive and intolerant heteronormativity, dressed up as sweet reason. All that’s required is that you understand that you live in a world in which which some men stick their dicks in other men. Period. You don’t have to be gay to understand simple facts like that.

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    Going further afield, the pickle who golfs, hitting the ball with too much side-spin, is another kind of pickle slicer, where “pickle” is a head noun (or appositive, both a pickle who slices and a slicer who is a pickle). Yes, a few t-shirts and cartoons of pickles who golf are on Google images, but nothing cute enough to repost.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Ah, what you have here are copulative compounds (of an appositional subtype): a pickle slicer is a slicer ‘golfer inclined to slice the ball’ that is also a pickle (so the slicer property is foregrounded, with the pickle property appositive to it: ‘a slicer (in golf), which is a pickle’). A slicer pickle is a pickle that is also a slicer (the pickle property is foregrounded, with the slicer property appositive: ‘a pickle, which is a slicer (in golf)’). In any case, the referent of the compound is both a pickle and a slicer (in golf).

  3. Danny Boy - London Derriere Says:

    If anyone didn’t know: Oh, she got fired too.

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