Verbal Antics

Posted by on May 12th, 2010 at 9:55 AM

The verbiage in the comics is often remarkably deft. Not surprising: cartoonists must play with words as well as pictures, and sometimes the playfulness in the former takes precedence over the latter. Jef Mallett in Frazz often explores the odd propensities of language, as he does here.

As you can see in the second example, a penchant for language manipulation can lead to wonderfully, er, colorful linguistic experiences even though the joke in this strip arises from Caulfield’s perversity as a student, not from his word usage. Earlier this week, he asked the opaque teacher Mrs. Olsen if Bruce Wayne did his best thinking in the bathroom. And when Frazz, the school janitor (if you’re not keeping up), heard of this escapade, he couldn’t resist:  “Please tell me Flush Gordon came up too.”

But the reason for my foray into language this time can be found in Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy for April 21; herewith:

Notice how the dialogue moves gracefully, effortlessly, from one idea to the next, each subsequent notion hinged on a preceding word or phrase. “Snail” leads Rob to think of “France.” Bucky is baffled by the reference, but Rob clarifies, prompting Bucky’s outburst about “frog talk,” and Rob brings us back to the beginning, turning the tables on the irritable Katt.

The next example offers another species of word play: “slow” becomes “stationary.” Beautiful.

In Greg Evans’ Luann, the joke proceeds from one seemingly random idea to the punchline: Tiffany, the self-absorbed teen beauty, is very fond of herself, and Crystal seizes on “like” to make the point.

Other kinds of word play are amply displayed in Mike Peters’ Mother Goose and Grimm below.

First, an adroit shift in the meaning of “special”; then an outrageous pun.

So, next time you want language lessons, consult the comics. Unless, of course, you are not a native English speaker, in which case, the bends and twists of the language will merely baffle. Why are moth and both pronounced differently when they’re spelled so much alike?

But language is not the only baffler in our culture. Why is it, for example, that we blow on soup to cool it, but when the weather outside is chilly, we are likely to blow on our hands to warm them up?

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8 Responses to “Verbal Antics”

  1. Tom Dougherty says:

    “Why is it, for example, that we blow on soup to cool it, but when the weather outside is chilly, we are likely to blow on our hands to warm them up?”

    Is this some type of sarcasm? Culture has nothing to do with it, as far as I know. I’m pretty sure it has to do with temperature differential.

    When you feel heat you’re feeling energy transferring from one substance to you. You warm up while the “hot” object cools into you (and likely into everything around you). When you feel something cold, the same thing is happening but in reverse. Your breath is close to body temperature, and extremities (like the skin on your hands) are likely to drop below core temperature on a cold day and so your breath will be warmer than your hands and blowing on them will warm them up as the heat is transferred.

    Blowing on hot liquid to cool it is a little more complex, but barely. Although your breath is likely to be warmer than the atmosphere in your general area (unless it’s a very hot day), the air above the hot liquid will be very warm and act as insulation, since heat transfer isn’t instantaneous. When you blow on the soup, what you’re really doing is pushing the hot air away from the surface of the liquid, making room for cooler air that can sap the heat from the liquid.

    I’m pretty sure this is basically correct, but if I’m wrong pls enlighten me. I’m not a physicist.

  2. Tom Dougherty says:

    Keep it up Socrates :p

  3. R.C. Harvey says:

    Geez: a scientist. I’m afraid I’m more of a socratian person. What about close, then? We cloz a door, but try not to come too clos to dangerous animals. The language abounds with this sort of bafflement. And the science is not physics: it’s linguistics and has something to do with the Norman invasion of England in 1066. But don’t get me started.

  4. Tom Dougherty says:

    Wait, wat? So now you’re Chomsky?

    What threw me off was this: “But language is not the only baffler in our culture.” And then your example of a cultural non-language bafflement was a word with two outcomes (heating and cooling). When the wind blows– when you blow– the same thing is happening. The localized atmosphere is being pushed around. The different outcomes (heating, cooling, evaporation, erosion) are the results of physics.

    When a prostitute blows, it’s a totally different thing. When a shitty situation blows, it is even more different. But it’s still language that’s the difference.

    Apologies for saying anything, it confuses me why you’d say blowing on two different things was a “cultural baffler” when it has verifiable practical purpose.

    And stop blaming the French for everything. Such an American thing to do. :P

    • R.C. Harvey says:

      Moth, both, the various meanings of “blow” you cite–all are essentially linguistic. Pronunciation of words, use of words to mean different things. “Blowing on soup” and “blowing on one’s hands” are not linguistic usages in quite the same way. Yes, you could argue that they are; but when I first ventured into the comparison, I didn’t want to get that detailed or dogmatic: I was merely pointing out a peculiarity in the language—one that a person who doesn’t speak English as a native language might be baffled by. That’s essentially a cultural matter. But I’m sure you know all that. You’re just jerking my chain, right?

      • Tom Dougherty says:

        Hey man, near as I can tell, blowing on soup and blowing on your hands is the same thing. Same pronunciation, same meaning… the only differences are the noun and the expected secondary consequence. But even if they weren’t the same thing, it’d still be a “peculiarity in the language” and not a non-language “baffler in our culture.”

        There are plenty of examples of cultural language barriers. The English and American uses of the word “fag” is a popular example. But I don’t think blowing on soup/hands is one of those examples. Even it it were, it wouldn’t be a non-language example. Hand gestures might work better for that.

        I’m worried that I’m getting dangerously close to trolling, so lemme know if you feel the same way.

  5. R.C. Harvey says:

    The reason it’s cultural and not linguistic is because the “baffling” part is cooling vs. warming, both achieved, under different circumstances, by blowing.