And the Other Is a Jellyfish


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Last week the British prime minister, the right honorable David Cameron, was trying to enjoy a quiet holiday on Lanzarote, the easternmost island of the Islas Canarias, ignoring the lurking press photographers constantly seeking to document his leisure activities. Unfortunately he also ignored the advice of locals about sea swimming, and had a painful encounter with an organism of the subphylum Medusozoa.

Cameron is not very popular in Britain. The right wing sees him as vastly too liberal (he pushed through the legalization of gay marriage!), and the leftists see him as just another Eton-educated posh boy siding with the bankers against the people. On the social media, the chatter rapidly sided with the jellyfish. And for me as a linguist the interest lay in the rhetorical structure of the way they crafted their witty remarks and jokes.

The least interesting tweets were just mean, but reading the wittier ones I was struck by their evident formulaicity. We are all plagiarists, creating our witty remarks by simply adapting earlier ones we dimly recall, often not going very far beyond just replacing nouns by other nouns. And in the age of Google it is much easier to track down original sources.

Quite a few people followed (whether they were aware of it or not) a line that goes back at least to 1766 and Oliver Goldsmith’s “Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog” (“The man recovered of the bite, / The dog it was that died”). One tweet said: “Still no word on the jellyfish which stung David Cameron. I hope it’s recovering.”

Another popular design was adapted from a famous gag by Woody Allen, in the script of Annie Hall: “I had dated a woman briefly in the Eisenhower administration, and it was ironic to me, because I was trying to do to her what Eisenhower had been doing to the country for the last eight years.” Putting that together with the (false) folk wisdom that urine alleviates jellyfish stings, we get this sort of thing:

David Cameron’s been stung by a jellyfish. He needs to go somewhere private and do to the sting what he’s been doing to the whole country.

But some designed their jokes around a pattern that worked particularly well. It is so clearly recognizable that I feel it ought to have a technical name, like so many rhetorical tropes do; but I don’t think it has one.

I’m thinking of technical terms in rhetoric like chiasmus, the name of the criss-cross pattern “A, B: B, A” that Jack Kennedy loved so much (“Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind”), based on the name of the Greek letter chi, because of its X-like shape. There is (as far as I’m aware) no comparable term for the way this remark on Twitter achieves its sting (no pun intended):

Breaking News: Incident on Lanzarote beach between disgusting slimy, spineless low-life and a jellyfish.

Other tweeters with essentially the same idea brought it closer to the “What’s the difference between … ?” joke type.

One is poisonous, with a tiny brain and no backbone. The other is a Jelly Fish.

That’s the twist that I feel deserves a name. It’s hard to summarize abstractly, but let me try: The jokes of this type go, “What’s the difference between X and Y?” and continue with an answer that looks like a vivid description of (say) X, and then continues with a brief and bland description, which fits X perfectly, making you realize that the vivid description must have been intended as a description of Y instead.

That’s a rather awkward characterization, but if you understand it you should be able to make up new jokes at will with the same surprise in the punchline.

What’s the difference between a kangaroo and our current dean? One has a remarkably small ratio of brain size to body weight and hops around looking stupid, and the other is a large Australian marsupial.

So I have a question for you, Lingua Franca readers. If you see my point about the general joke formula cum rhetorical trick I have just rather clumsily delineated: What would be a suitably mnemonic term for the rhetorical pattern involved?

Added later (May 3): A correspondent pointed out to me an example that deserves to be regarded as a classic of the genre. It appeared on the blog Kung Fu Monkey in 2009:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

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