We resume our discussion on translation, but this time it’s not about the perils of unintended change between languages, but within English itself.
There is a humorous line attributed to Groucho Marx that goes: “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana”. He may well have said it, but the phrase is used in linguistics as an example of syntactic ambiguity, and in word play as an example of punning and double entendre. Such a sentence is called a ‘garden path sentence’ because its initial grammatical correctness lulls a reader into assuming that the most likely interpretation will be correct, only to be lured by a subsequent parse that turns out to be a dead end. Groucho was an old master at constructing these. In Memoirs of a Mangy Lover he writes, “This is what is called a lapse, of which there are four to a mile, and not one worth sitting on”.
But we digress. Coming back to “Time flies like an arrow”, Martin Gardner, in his column in Scientific American, tells this story about the difficulties a computer faces as it attempts to understand the phrase. The computer must first decide which is the noun in the sentence, which is the verb, and so on. The first meaning that the computer may decide on may be that the first word ‘time’ is the noun, the second word ‘flies’ is the verb, and the rest a prepositional phrase. The meaning in this case will be the one that is most commonly associated with the phrase.
Now look at this joke found in a 1930 issue of Boys’ Life: Scoutmaster: Time flies. Smart Tenderfoot: You can’t. They go too fast.
Here ‘time’ is a verb, and ‘flies’ is a noun. The cheeky response subverts the line to make it look like an order to clock the speed of flies. There is a third interpretation. If there exists a specific kind of fly called a time fly, and if (for whatever reason) they like arrows, well, there you have it: “Time flies like an arrow”. Now ‘time’ is an adjective!
Earlier still, and in similar vein, the phrase “let your hair down” was quoted as having four different interpretations. The curious may want to work out the variables.