Friday - - Mind Games -

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.

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