herd it / heard it

The pay-off to an elaborate set-up tale, giving a pun on a familiar expression (in this case a song title). From Vince the Sign Guy: Vince Rozmiarek of Indian Hills CO and (from his Facebook page) “his lighthearted puns shown on local community signs”:

Phonologically, there’s a stretch of speech that’s both I herd it through the grapevines (the pun, the pay-off from the vineyard cow story) and the nearly homophonous “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (the model, the song title); semiotically, however, that stretch of speech is either about one of these situations or the other, not two nearly identical situations

Specifically, there’s no metaphorical structuring of the vineyard cow situation (in the story) on the basis of the information exchange situation (in the song). Their only relationship is phonological.

This isn’t a defect; most puns are merely phonological, and that’s fine. Vince Rozmiarek’s vineyard cow story is a great little joke, of a recognizable genre of punning: the set-up + pay-off story based on a formulaic expression — for short, a formula pun.

It’s just that a small number of puns are what I’ve sometimes called — I’ve wrestled a long time with ways of saying this — satisfying, meaning semiotically satisfying: the participants are represented as belonging to two worlds at once. They are anteaters, say, with the formicavore’s passionate hunger for the insects, but they are also diners in conventional American restaurants, insisting on specific kinds of table service and exhibiting dining quirks (like an aversion to spicy food). The first of these worlds is systematically mapped into the second, in an elaborate metaphor. (The restaurant-going anteaters are a recurring theme in Bizarro cartoons.)

From this month in my postings: on 8/3 “Brief shot: cock time”, about the expression cock time:

An atrocious pun [on clock time], but satisfying in that some … item is not merely introduced into a context for a near-homophone, but participates in the world of that model expression. We see something that’s a cock [a man’s penis] and a (kind of) clock.

(Vince the Sign Guy on grapevines came to me on Facebook yesterday, passed through many hands, as is the way of such things; I got it from Susan Fischer.)

The phonology. From NOAD on the two nouns grapevine:

noun grapevine: 1 a vine native to both Eurasia and North America, especially one bearing fruit (grapes) used for eating or winemaking. Numerous cultivars and hybrids have been developed for the winemaking industry. Genus Vitis, family Vitaceae: many species, in particular V. vinifera and the American V. labrusca. 2 informal used to refer to the circulation of rumors and unofficial information: I’d heard through the grapevine that the business was nearly settled.

This ambiguity then combines with another lexical ambiguity, of the PRS-form verb herd vs. the PST-form verb heard.

The song. From Wikipedia:

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is a song written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for Motown Records in 1966. The first recording of the song to be released was produced by Whitfield for Gladys Knight & the Pips and released as a single in September 1967. It went to number one on the Billboard R&B Singles chart and number two on the Billboard Pop Singles chart and shortly became the biggest selling Motown single up to that time.

The Miracles were the first to record the song in 1966, but their version was not released until August 1968, when it was included on their album Special Occasion.

The Marvin Gaye version was the second to be recorded, in the beginning of 1967, but the third to be released. It was placed on his 1968 album In the Groove, a year and a half later, where it gained the attention of radio disc jockeys. Motown founder Berry Gordy finally agreed to its release as a single on the Tamla subsidiary in October 1968, when it went to the top of the Billboard Pop Singles chart for seven weeks from December 1968 to January 1969, overtaking the Gladys Knight & the Pips version as the biggest hit single on the Motown family of labels up to that point.

The Gaye recording has since become an acclaimed soul classic.

And I now have it lodged in my mind, on repeat.

On (semiotically) satisfying puns. See my 8/4/18 posting “Cultural knowledge”, on (metaphorical) translations of one world into another in three cartoons.

On formula puns. From my 7/6/22 posting “Toad away, groaning”:

Outrageous elaborate set-up puns, based on formulaic expressions, are a genre in themselves, often treated as a kind of shaggy dog story (because of their complexity), though classic shaggy dog stories are anticlimactic, while these formula puns culminate in a complex pay-off. I learned the elaborately transpositional boyfoot bear with teak of Chan in high school, and then the elaborately punning crossing staid lions for immortal porpoises not long after …

In any case, some cartoonists are especially drawn to the [set-up + pay-off] formula-pun genre. Stephan Pastis [of Pearls Before Swine], in particular.


5 Responses to “herd it / heard it”

  1. lise menn Says:

    Not to mention Pastis’ straps groaning about his own punning. Pre-empts his readers’ reproofs.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    From Walt Kelly, back in the 1950s:

    “Do you herd sheep?” my gramma sighed;
    My grampa leapt in fright.
    “That grammar’s wrong!” to me he cried,
    “‘*Have* you heard sheep?’ is right.”

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