The Risky Business of Deadpan Humor


Sometimes on the first day of April, someone at Language Log will inject a trace of levity into what can be a fairly nerdy blog by posting a joke news item about language or linguistics. This year there was no such effort, so (since I occasionally contribute to Language Log and felt the urge to provoke mirth creeping up on me) I created a new genre: the retrospective metahoax. But I must be honest: It failed catastrophically with at least one reader. The case is really quite instructive. In this age of fake news, humor on the internet can be an unpredictably dangerous thing. The satire and the news are becoming too similar.

Here’s what I did. I took two serious current items, a Victor Mair post about the frustrations of looking up rare Chinese characters and an April 1 tabloid science story about dinosaurs, and wrote a mock rant alleging that both had been unnoticed April-Fool hoaxes and readers shouldn’t be so credulous. And the next morning I received this email:


Dear Professor Pullum,
You are the problem. Rather than educate the public (and credulous journalists), you choose to demonstrate how much more clever you are, to everyone's detriment.
I suspect you lack the self awareness to ask yourself whether hoaxes like these contribute to the public's increasing mistrust of expertise and contempt for academics. Rest assured, you are indeed contemptible.


It bore a real name and an email address at a company domain name. I withhold these details because, contrary to popular belief, I can be merciful.

I had carefully injected enough absurdity into the post (or so I thought) to ensure that no one could miss the humor. I announced that in truth there are only about 95 Chinese characters, roughly the same as the number of different characters used in English typesetting. The apparent complexity of written Chinese, I asserted, was just “filler and ornamentation, like the elaborately illuminated initial letters in medieval manuscripts.” I added that “Chinese people often pretend they don’t know it very well just to be polite.”

I took it to be general knowledge that, no matter which dictionary you pick, the number of characters in the awful Chinese writing system is way into the tens of thousands.

On the dinosaur story, I was even more careful to be ridiculous. My inspiration came from the headline chosen by a free tabloid newspaper: “The T-Rex was a ‘sensitive lover’ and used its nose for foreplay.” There actually was a scientific paper behind the story, not too hard to find (see it here), and it did have one line (out of many hundreds) in which the possibility of affectionate nuzzling was mentioned. But I pretended to be utterly outraged that anyone should believe such transparent nonsense:

A five-ton predator, almost certainly cannibalistic, with teeth the size of carving knives, playing kissy-face? Dinosaur lovers playfully rubbing noses and caressing cheeks? Maybe going down for a quarter of an hour of gentle dinosaur cunnilingus, clutching her lower body with those tiny little arms? Are you kidding me?

My judgment was that by the time people reached “clutching her lower body with those tiny little arms” they would be laughing so much that tears would be rolling down their cheeks. Not so, apparently.

You may remember that once before I was faced with what I saw as academic hate mail, a message from someone who just wanted to express his hostility at me because of my opinions. I published a post mulling over six different kinds of reply I could perhaps send (imitative, ethical, flippant, reflective, abusive, or Wildean); but ultimately I sent no reply at all. This time I decided to do what cricketers call playing it with a straight bat. I wrote back thus:


Hmm. I wasn't expecting deadpan humor to fail as badly as this in early April. In fact your message almost (but not quite) looks like a hoax.
Neither case I discussed has anything to do with hoaxing or April fooling. Victor Mair meant what he said, and fully endorses my entirely truthful claims about the awful Chinese writing system; and the newspaper stories about tender dinosaur snouts being (perhaps) important to courtship is from a genuine paper in Scientific Reports. My mock contempt was an oblique satirical comment on this strange modern world where nastiness in parts of the news media has completely overwhelmed fact-checking.
May I enter you in my records as having apologized?


And my uncharacteristic efforts at being kind and sincere were not in vain, for the stranger (I imagine him with his clothes wet with sweat and his hair standing high) wrote back to apologize. He never rode that downbound train.

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