ON LANGUAGE; PUNCH-LINE ENGLISH
By William Safire
Published: March 11, 1984, The New York Times
When a reader inquired into the origin of the expression
don't make waves , I pointed out in this space that the widely used catch phrase was the punch line of an old joke on the theme of not causing a bad situation to worsen.
Lexicographic Irregulars were then asked to survey the language for other examples of punch-line English. I now have a file bulging with the wheeziest chestnuts in any comic's routine, but some of the submissions provide a needed etymology of well- worn lines that make points to insiders. Foreign students of the language, as well as native speakers who never heard the jokes, hear phrases that seem idiomatic. The phrases are not idioms; rather, they are dangling punch lines to forgotten stories, remaining in the language like the smile of the Cheshire cat.
Don't make waves , for example, has its derivation explained by John Bailey Lloyd of Beach Haven, N.J.: ''The soul of a debauchee arrives in hell. The Devil offers him the choice of one of three doors to enter and stay for eternity. From behind the first door comes the sound of drinking and revelry; from the second, the sound of merriment; from the third, a chorus crying, 'Don't make waves.' Curious, he chooses the third. The Devil opens the door to a Dantesque scene in which thousands of souls are standing up to their chins in foul muck and mire, wailing to each new arrival, 'Don't make waves!' ''
That's the classic background to that catch phrase, recounted in as inoffensive a way as possible. Refinements exist: Whenever a specific religious group is to be derogated, the Devil is said to add, ''Wait till the (name of group) come by in their speedboats.'' However, I estimate that fewer than half the users of the phrase know the original old joke.
Sometimes a cartoon caption makes it into the language. When told, ''It's broccoli, dear,'' a with-it moppet of the 1920's told her mother, ''I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.'' Carl Rose of The New Yorker drew the cartoon, and E. B. White supplied the caption, which is a phrase still used to signify: ''Don't confuse me with the facts when I want to indulge my prejudices.''
Another New Yorker cartoonist, Peter Arno, drew a cartoon of a mangled wreckage of an airplane, frantic rescue squads at the scene, with the aircraft designer, plans under one arm, saying, ''Well, back to the old drawing board.'' This 1941 caption, often accompanied by a profound sigh, is now used for any brave or resigned reaction to situations in which the best-laid plans gang aft a-gley.
Most dangling punch lines, however, have left long stories behind. ''Ready when you are, C. B.!'' - indicating enthusiastic ineptitude - is used by moviegoers who have never heard of mogul Cecil B. De Mille. When that phrase was cited in my original query - incorrectly, as ''Whenever you're ready, C. B.'' - an anonymous supporter in The New York Times's systems support (is this a system?) sent this etymology: ''C. B. De Mille was filming an extravagant scene which called for the entire town set to be destroyed.
''He set up three cameras. The scene was played, the town destroyed. Picking up his megaphone, the great director asked: 'Camera One - how was it?' The reply: 'A real work of art, C. B., but the film broke.' De Mille, undaunted, called out: 'Camera Two - how'd it go?' 'Brilliant, C. B., but I left the lens cap on.' Desperate now, De Mille called: 'Camera Three - come in, Camera Three!' And the punchline: 'Ready when you are, C. B.!' ''
Native speakers who react to this etymology with know- it-all sneers are invited to a higher level of difficulty. ''An expression from my youth has itched me mightily for the past year,'' writes Franklin Gracer of Yorktown Heights, N.Y. ''I presume it is the punch line of a long-lost joke. The line is: 'No soap, radio.' It is a purely verbal memory, but includes the pause indicated by the comma. Do you have any idea of the provenance or meaning?''
Several readers asked the same question. Here is the joke: A lion and a lioness were taking a bath together. The lion said, ''Please pass the soap,'' and the lioness replied, ''No soap, radio.''
That's a joke? You don't get it? That's the point: It is a test, not a joke. ''This unfunny two-liner grew out of a lunchtime discussion in the basement of Slocum Hall at Syracuse University,'' writes Jan Rubin of Oakland, N.J., ''of the fact that some people find it difficult to admit their ignorance.'' Her group made up a nonjoke - with a meaningless punch line - to see how people would react when told the story. If they joined in the general laughter, they were fearful of admitting they did not see the point; if they confessed, ''I don't get it,'' they were honest. Evidently, to this day, No soap, radio is floating around, disembodied, meaning: ''If you laugh, you're a phony.''
''What's this 'we' jazz, paleface?'' is an expression that has come to mean ''I do not associate myself with your remarks.'' The provenance is recounted by Dr. Daniel Hely of Carlisle, Pa.: ''Surrounded by hostile Indians, the Lone Ranger turned to his faithful companion and said, 'Looks like we're done for, Tonto,' to which the red man replied as cited above.'' Dr. Hely traces this ridicule of the presumptuous use of the first-person- plural pronoun to a story told about a supposed May 1927 radio communication: ''What do you mean, 'we,' Lindbergh?''
Yiddish is a superb source of punch lines: ''But who's counting?'' and ''So I lied'' have already been explained in this space. ''But what have you done for me lately?'' and ''Who's minding the store?'' are self-evident. ''Don't make trouble'' is the whispered advice from one man facing a firing squad to the man next to him demanding a blindfold, and ''That's half the battle'' is a matchmaker's expression of relief after having gained a proud mother's permission to arrange a marriage between her pipsqueak son and Princess Anne. Edward Bleier of Warner Brothers Television supplies the story behind ''I once had a car like that,'' an expression of mock sympathy: ''A Texas rancher asks to see the largest ranch in Israel and is shown a spread of only six acres. He describes his own ranch by saying he can start driving at sunup on the longest day of the year and finally, at sundown, he would still be driving on his own property. To which the Israeli replies, 'I once had a car like that.' ''
We come now to the punch line that has forced its way into reference works despite its scatological origin and, as reflected in the mail, is the most famous example of punch-line English. In Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, under the verb hit , is the phrase hit the fan . Considerations of good taste preclude my explaining to visiting Martians the lead up to this punch line, but E. W. Gilman of Merriam-Webster comments: ''Even though the story was based on highly improbable assumptions (for one, that the fan was working in reverse), the image evoked was vivid enough to have won itself a small place in the language.''
The lexicographer adds: ''I think that the popular phrase of a year or two back, 'That's all she wrote,' is also probably a punch line, but I have never heard the story.''
He has touched on one of the great mysteries of punch-line English. In World War II, a Dear John letter was a communication from the girl back home that she had decided to sit under the apple tree with another; in that connection, That's all she wrote became current. It was probably attached to a joke, but the joke has been lost to civilization's collective memory, same as the meaning behind the ancient dead as a doornail . That is why today's research on punch-line English is so vital; centuries from now, some distraught human being will look up from the depths of despair and whisper, ''There must be a pony in here somewhere.'' Lexicographers will know, thanks to these lines preserved on some diamond-hard disk, that he is punch-lining President Reagan's story of the optimistic kid who was shown to a roomful of manure.
There are more, but not tonight, Josephine. No more, Mr. Nice Guy. There's nobody in here but us chickens.
When Pavel and Peter were young men, living at home in Russia, they were asked to be groomsmen for a friend who was to marry the belle of another village. It was in the dead of winter and the groom's party went over to the wedding in sledges. Peter and Pavel drove in the groom's sledge, and six sledges followed with all his relatives and friends.
After the ceremony at the church, the party went to a dinner given by the parents of the bride. The dinner lasted all afternoon; then it became a supper and continued far into the night. There was much dancing and drinking. At midnight the parents of the bride said good-bye to her and blessed her. The groom took her up in his arms and carried her out to his sledge and tucked her under the blankets. He sprang in beside her, and Pavel and Peter (our Pavel and Peter!) took the front seat. Pavel drove. The party set out with singing and the jingle of sleigh-bells, the groom's sledge going first. All the drivers were more or less the worse for merry-making, and the groom was absorbed in his bride.
The wolves were bad that winter, and everyone knew it, yet when they heard the first wolf-cry, the drivers were not much alarmed. They had too much good food and drink inside them. The first howls were taken up and echoed and with quickening repetitions. The wolves were coming together. There was no moon, but the starlight was clear on the snow. A black drove came up over the hill behind the wedding party. The wolves ran like streaks of shadow; they looked no bigger than dogs, but there were hundreds of them.
Something happened to the hindmost sledge: the driver lost control-- he was probably very drunk--the horses left the road, the sledge was caught in a clump of trees, and overturned. The occupants rolled out over the snow, and the fleetest of the wolves sprang upon them. The shrieks that followed made everybody sober. The drivers stood up and lashed their horses. The groom had the best team and his sledge was lightest-- all the others carried from six to a dozen people.
Another driver lost control. The screams of the horses were more terrible to hear than the cries of the men and women. Nothing seemed to check the wolves. It was hard to tell what was happening in the rear; the people who were falling behind shrieked as piteously as those who were already lost. The little bride hid her face on the groom's shoulder and sobbed. Pavel sat still and watched his horses. The road was clear and white, and the groom's three blacks went like the wind. It was only necessary to be calm and to guide them carefully.
At length, as they breasted a long hill, Peter rose cautiously and looked back. 'There are only three sledges left,' he whispered.
'And the wolves?' Pavel asked.
'Enough! Enough for all of us.'
Pavel reached the brow of the hill, but only two sledges followed him down the other side. In that moment on the hilltop, they saw behind them a whirling black group on the snow. Presently the groom screamed. He saw his father's sledge overturned, with his mother and sisters. He sprang up as if he meant to jump, but the girl shrieked and held him back. It was even then too late. The black ground-shadows were already crowding over the heap in the road, and one horse ran out across the fields, his harness hanging to him, wolves at his heels. But the groom's movement had given Pavel an idea.
They were within a few miles of their village now. The only sledge left out of six was not very far behind them, and Pavel's middle horse was failing. Beside a frozen pond something happened to the other sledge; Peter saw it plainly. Three big wolves got abreast of the horses, and the horses went crazy. They tried to jump over each other, got tangled up in the harness, and overturned the sledge.
When the shrieking behind them died away, Pavel realized that he was alone upon the familiar road. 'They still come?' he asked Peter.
Now his middle horse was being almost dragged by the other two. Pavel gave Peter the reins and stepped carefully into the back of the sledge. He called to the groom that they must lighten-- and pointed to the bride. The young man cursed him and held her tighter. Pavel tried to drag her away. In the struggle, the groom rose. Pavel knocked him over the side of the sledge and threw the girl after him. He said he never remembered exactly how he did it, or what happened afterward. Peter, crouching in the front seat, saw nothing. The first thing either of them noticed was a new sound that broke into the clear air, louder than they had ever heard it before--the bell of the monastery of their own village, ringing for early prayers.
Pavel and Peter drove into the village alone, and they had been alone ever since. They were run out of their village. Pavel's own mother would not look at him. They went away to strange towns, but when people learned where they came from, they were always asked if they knew the two men who had fed the bride to the wolves.
"My Antonia" by Willa Cather, first published, 1918
He stopped in the doorway of the KP room and looked back at the messhall. He remembered the picture the rest of his life. It had become very quiet and everybody had stopped eating and looked up at each other.
“Must be doin some dynamitin down to Wheeler Field,” somebody said tentatively.
This seemed to satisfy everybody. They went back to their eating. Warden heard a laugh ring out above the hungry gnashings of cutlery on china, as he turned back into the KP room. The tail of the chow line was still moving past the two griddles...
That was when the second blast came. He could hear it a long way off coming toward them under the ground; then it was there before he could move, rattling the cups and the plates in the KP sinks and the rinsing racks, then it was gone and he could hear it going away northeast toward the 21st Infantry’s football field. Both the KPs were looking at him...
Warden grabbed his coffee cup in one hand and his halfpint of milk in the other and ran out through the messhall screendoor onto the porch. The far door, into the dayroom, was already so crowded he could not have pushed through. He ran down the porch and turned into the corridor that ran down to the street and beat them all outside but for one or two. When he stopped and looked back he saw Chief Choate and Stark were right behind him. Chief Choate had his plate of hotcakes-and-eggs in his left hand and his fork in the other. He took a big bite. Warden turned back and swallowed some coffee.
Down the street and over the trees a big column of black smoke was mushrooming up into the sky. The men behind were crowding out the door and into the street. Almost everybody had brought his bottle of milk to keep it from getting stolen, and a few had brought their coffee too. From the middle of the street Warden could not see any more than he had seen from the edge, just the same big column of black smoke mushrooming up into the sky from down around Wheeler Field. He took a drink of his coffee and pulled the cap off his milk bottle.
“Gimme some of that coffee,” Stark said in a dead voice behind him, and held up his own cup. “Mine was empty.”
He turned to hand him the cup and when he turned back a big tall thin red-headed boy who had not been there before was running down the street toward them, his red hair flapping in his self-induced breeze.
“Whats up, Red?” Warden hollered at him. “What’s happening?”
The red-headed boy went on running down the street concentratedly, his eyes glaring whitely wildly at them.
“The Japs is bombing Wheeler Field,” he hollered over his shoulder. “I seen the big red circles on the wings!”
He went on running down the middle of the street, and quite suddenly right behind him came a big roaring, getting bigger and bigger; behind the roaring came an airplane, leaping out suddenly over the trees.
Warden, along with the rest of them, watched it coming with his milk bottle still at his lips and the twin red flashes winking out from the nose. It came over and down and up and away and was gone, and the stones in the asphalt pavement at his feet popped up in a long curving line that led up the curb and puffs of dust came up from the grass and a line of cement popped out of the wall to the roof, then back down the wall to the grass and off out across the street again in a big S-shaped curve.
A LINE IN THE SAND [EXCERPT]
I got out of the water and went to the cabana, which was really a sultan’s tent, white and tangerine. It went well with my pullover. I sat down to dry my legs.
He followed me. “ I wasn’t kidding about the watch. I really want you to have it.”
“Steady, playboy. Stay in your lane.” Yes, I was being flip, because I did not want to be mean. But I did not want to owe this meatball anything. He took it the wrong way. He took it as a challenge. I had become a challenge.
He sat down on the wicker couch. “And a tousand.”
“A thousand what.”
“You know,” he whispered. “Dollars.”
“Fuck you.” We were so outtahere. I stood up. Carissa and Michael were in a hot tub near the other end of the pool.
I looked around. That way led back to the bar--
“Wait,” he said. “You don’t understand.”
“No, I’ve got it perfect.”
“That’s not it.”
“You can’t treat me like meat, I haven’t done a god damn thing to make you think you can treat me like that.”
“That’s it. That’s why.”
“I wouldn’t offer all this to a . . . woman who would—”
“Whore, you’re trying to say.”
He didn’t move, just sat there staring up at me.
I had no moral objection to fucking him. Aesthetic objection, I had. But that was all irrelevant. I was in danger, now. A whirlwind of emotions was flitting around in my chest, having to do with something that my seducer could not imagine. Amanda.
I had known Amanda all my life. Two years ago this summer, she went to Vegas with her boyfriend. He was a drug dealer and he had made a big score and they went to Vegas to celebrate. And after a crazy night they had a crazy argument and he shot her, accidentally, but dead just the same. It was a pointless, almost random death that seemed to want to make her whole life seem pointless as well. But no one’s life is pointless, which is why this incident was so painful for her family and her friends, including me. Ever since then I have walked on eggshells in unknown social situations. And I have cleaved to the straight way. Obsessively. Today I had let down my guard a little, and look how it ended up. With this peachfuzz gangster who offered money with one hand, and might have a gun in the other. It was not that I feared for my virtue. I feared for my life.
He grabbed his gym bag and looked in. His hand came out with money. He put a little packet of bills on the couch next to him. It was held together with a spring clip. He put another one on top of it. “Two.”
“You’ve got the stink of drug money all over you,” I said. I waved to Carissa at the other end of the pool. She seemed to look at me but did not move.
“Three,” he said.
I felt my legs tremble. Much as I wanted to leave, I could not move. I sat down on one of the lounges that faced the pool. I was no longer angry about being thought a whore, or afraid of being killed. I believed he really meant what he said. In his mind it was all perfectly ordered. He was buying purity. I am not Purity. “You still don’t get it. I don’t want anything you’ve got, cuz you are trouble. And I don’t want no more of it.”
“What will it take? Five thousand, and all I want to do is sniff cocaine off your naked breast.”
I was so shocked at what he said, that I began to cry. Now I was really afraid. Now we were entering into a kind of depravity I had never experienced. I could see the lust in his eyes. I know boys. He would not stop with that. Once they get started they hate to stop.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
I took a deep breath. “You said you want me because I’m not a whore, and then you want to treat me like one. And you don’t know anything about me. Or care.”
“You’re right. I don’t know about you. I don’t know your story. And if that means that I don’t care about you, then I guess that’s true. But I do care about you. I admire you. You have grace, and beauty, and charm, like the ancient queens. You are a star. I don’t need you for sex. I can have unlimited sex whenever I want. This is just a little fun little thing. To show my admiration for your beautiful body.”
I looked around. I thought about the money. I thought about dignity. And honor. Just words, aren’t they. Charm and grace are also words.
“Count it out,” I said.