Best Linguistic Jokes of the 2015 Fringe


Jo Brand delivered Geoff Pullum’s No. 4

August is gone, and with it the Edinburgh Festival and its fabulous Fringe. The grand orchestral concert with fireworks over the castle was on Monday night, the climax of a perfect summer day. All the most ambitious comedians in the country are now checking out of their rented accommodation and heading for the train station or the airport. And I have promises to keep.

At the end of my July 22 post I made a pledge: “In September I will let you know about the linguistically cleverest jokes that were brought here this year.” September has now begun, and the Edinburgh weather has clearly announced that it is officially fall. I am a man of my word, and I have prepared a Letterman-style Top 10 for you: the best 10 jokes of the summer from a linguist’s perspective.

I’ll begin with the outright winner of the official award, judged by a panel of 10 experts, which unfortunately I think is rubbish, and barely even scrapes in as my No. 10:

10. I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It’s Hans-free. (Darren Walsh)

It is not even clear that this is original: Since the judges made their award, another comedian, Pete Cunningham, has claimed that he wrote it years ago and shared it with Walsh via Twitter. But never mind; onward and upward toward No. 1.

A little better than the Hans-free phone joke is this appealingly childlike riddle, which some people thought highly of, and the official panel ranked in its Top 10:

9. What’s the difference between a hippo and a Zippo? One is really heavy, the other is a little lighter. (Masai Graham)

A major linguistic staple of the humor business is the pun. This one plays on the everyday meaning of a word that also has a technical sense in a specific domain, and I thought it was smooth and lovely:

8. Never date a tennis player. Love means nothing to them. (Matt Winning)

This one is also a pun, and is by Walsh again, but is much better than the one that got him the award. It’s very simple, and was enormously popular:

7. My cat is recovering from a massive stroke. (Darren Walsh)

Sometimes you can take a very simple cliché and put a sentence before it that makes it unexpectedly funny. It happens in this joke:

6. I spent the last three days alone, trying to learn escapology. I need to get out more. (Pete Firman)

This one does something very similar, and also shares the property of requiring an understanding of a technical word of low frequency:

5. Recently in court, I was found guilty of being egotistical. I am appealing. (Stewart Francis)

This one seems to completely change the truth conditions of the preceding sentence by tacking on a single devastating preposition-phrase adjunct:

4. I am the one in my family who does all the driving, because my husband never learned to drive. In my opinion. (Jo Brand)

Hits you right between the eyes. And another joke of that kind that made me laugh out loud has an even more wonderful surprise element to it. You need to know that Waterstones is an important local bookstore:

3. I went to Waterstones and asked the woman for a book about turtles. She asked: “Hardback?” and I was like: “Yeah, and little heads.” (Mark Simmons)

I really chuckled at that. It did me good. And yet somehow the cerebral and lexicographical slant of this next one, with its Cartesian allusion, convinced me to rank it even higher:

2. If you don’t know what introspection is, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. (Ian Smith)

Quiet and thoughtful, but beautiful. And that brings us to my No. 1. As a linguist, I really had to assign top place to the only joke that trades on a technical term in syntax. So here it is, my winner:

1. Let me tell you a little about myself. It’s a reflexive pronoun that means “me.” (Ally Houston)

Does the reflexive myself really mean the same as the accusative me ? Believe it or not, there is doubt about that among semanticists. In this example, me seems not to be replaceable by myself without altering the meaning:

Last night I dreamed I was Jennifer Lopez, and I kissed me.

With me the sense seems to be that in the dream world my consciousness inhabited J-Lo, who kissed a dream-world replica of Geoff Pullum whose body I did not inhabit. If you replace me by myself you get a sentence describing a dream-world J-Lo kissing herself. At least I think you do. So perhaps myself doesn’t have exactly the same meaning as me in every context.

But hey, I’m not going to let semantic pedantry ruin things. It’s a lovely linguist-friendly joke, and it’s my winner for 2015.

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