It is November, and the Word Play files beckon.
Since the death of Apple leader Steve Jobs on Oct. 5, one joke has spread to every blog in the webiverse. “Ten years ago, America had Steve Jobs, Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. Now it has no Jobs, no Hope and no Cash.”
It’s a great triple pun, and it has a history. On May 17, 1982, The New York Times wrote that Horst Ehmke, a member of parliament in what was then West Germany, was sharing a joke with friends during a visit to the United States.
“A German asks an American, ‘Explain to me what is really going on in your country.’ ‘You can understand it all in three names,’ replies the American. ‘Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. And what about your country?’ ‘Well,’ says the German. ‘We’ve got Helmut Schmidt, but no hope and no cash.’”
The joke may have been old even then. Somewhere there should be a database where the originators of witticisms can register their work to prove to later generations that they were the first to think of the material.
In the same vein, another column wondered which author first used the subtitle “an unauthorized autobiography.” The example offered was from 1999, but reader Caroline Sewards points to a 1992 book by Larry Rivers with Arnold Weinstein: What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Autobiography. The trail stretches further to John Krich’s 1982 paperback A Totally Free Man: An Unauthorized Autobiography of Fidel Castro. The bibliographic dig continues.
A column about zillion and other large imaginary amounts reminded a few readers of a joke. Here is Chris Kelk’s version: When U.S. President George W. Bush “was informed that three Brazilian soldiers had been killed, he reacted with uncustomary shock and then said, ‘Wait a minute. How many is a brazilian?’”
An online reader insisted that any search for the ultimate zillionaire must lead to Scrooge McDuck, the cantankerous Disney character for whom a zillion dollars is mere pocket change. According to sources cited online, such as Don Rosa’s book The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, the duck’s fortune is estimated at between one and five multiplujillion dollars, with the smaller details calculated in impossibidillions and obsquatumatillions. Sort of like the euro zone’s debt.
Elsewhere in the wordiverse, Dennis Wilson noticed the headline on a story about running in hot weather: “4 Cool Things You Should Know About Running In Heat.” Wilson comments: “If people (particularly women) are running in heat, can we expect a population boom in nine months?”
Murray Charters was struck by this quote in an advertisement for a book: “To read it is to tingle with emotion, and to be lead on a passionate dance you’re not likely soon to forget.” Charters remarks: “I would suggest your dance partner wouldn’t forget you either if you ended up being lead when involved in a passionate dance.”
Teacher Donnie Friedman says that, while marking the writing of his Grade 8 students on the subject of “whether or not spanking is a legitimate disciplinary tool, I encountered this gem: ‘Spanking young children may damage their sense of steam.’” So that’s how kids maintain their high energy levels.
Finally, I must apologize to Robert Hartwell Fiske for a statement I made last week in discussing his new book, Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English. I said he had banished the word “inflammable” because it means the same as flammable. In fact, he did nothing of the kind. He merely noted that the word is “misused for nonflammable. ... Since the consequences of not knowing the definition of inflammable are potentially severe, most people quickly learn the meaning of this word.”
Sitting too close to flammable and inflammable, I learned, can leave a columnist red-faced.