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.