Words & Stuff

G: Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb? (Reader Comments)

(10 January 1999)

Danny Fahs provides his family's answer to "What's the differerence between a duck?": "The higher, the fewer." He adds:

"How man Zen Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A golden tree in the forest."

Which requires me to throw in another lightbulb joke:

How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two: one to hold the giraffe and one to fill up the bathtub with brightly colored machine tools.

(Btw, please don't take those as a request for LBJs on other topics; there're plenty of lists of them on the Net, and I don't want to turn this comments page into another one...)

Danny concludes with this "no longer surreal, but just smart-alecky" item:

A: What's the difference between?
B: Between what?
A: I'm not giving you any hints!

He says, "I remember that the beauty of this was that the initial question never failed to evoke the 'Between what?' response."

Pierre Abbat points out that "Moses took two tablets, a budded branch, and a jar of manna on the Ark. (An ark is a chest or box. Noah's ark was called that because he built it like a box, to float, not like a boat, to sail.)" A good point. My answer should be emended to "Moses didn't take any animals on the ark," to match the question.

He adds a pair o' duck variations (which he claims "make more sense"):

What is the difference between a duck? One has feathers.

How is a duck alike? One of its legs is the same.

And he says, "The answer I heard to 'Why is a mouse when it spins?' is 'The higher, the fewer.'" Clearly there are a lot of intertwingled variations here. (It's possible that my answer "The higher it spins, the faster" is a mis-reconstruction of "The higher, the fewer" by either me or the person I first heard the riddle from.)

Pierre adds a few more questions:

He concludes by saying "There was another one of these questions which was something like 'Which would you rather ______ or a ______?' but I forget the verb and the noun." Anyone?

I had intended to work into the column another line much like those last ones, "More people have been to Russia than I have," but it didn't quite seem to fit anywhere so I left it out. I like this kind of phrase (though I hadn't known others besides this one existed) because they seem to make sense at first, but the more you think about them the less sense they make...

[I had thought Elliott Moreton came up with "More people have been to Russia than I have," but he wrote in to set the record straight: "I heard it around the Brain & Cognitive Sciences dept at MIT circa 1993, quoted by William Snyder in conversation. He attributed it to a mid-1970s syntax paper by someone with an Italian surname, but I forget who." My apologies to the original author for my misattribution.]

Arthur suggests that my question starting out "If an LP is eight inches in diameter..." can be correctly answered with any number of answers, because it starts from a false premise; an LP is actually twelve inches in diameter. Picky, picky.

He also points out that water isn't necessarily frozen at 30 degrees Fahrenheit; depends on atmospheric pressure and salt content and so on.

And he adds: "you use the word 'emend' for 'correct,' which sent me scurrying for my dictionary. Just out of curiousity, do you use this word because you particularly like it, or because you believe that using 'amend' in this context would be wrong?" To which the answer is, I use "emend" whenever I get a chance, mostly 'cause I'm a snob. (More seriously, it's a more precise and less common word than "amend"; you can pretty much always use "amend" in place of "emend," but not vice versa. So I use it for precision, and because I like it, and because it's fun to send people scurrying for their dictionaries every now and then. Then, too, it gives people a chance to feel superior to me when I mis-use it.)

Another trick question: "Is it legal for a man to marry his widow's sister?" (Answer)

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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>