Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Fox gloves and puns

I've got a pair of gloves (those fingerless ones with mittens that flip off so that you can work your phone) that have a fox design, from Primark:
Fox gloves from Primark [photo source]
I've been wearing them for some time, and refer to them as my 'fox gloves'. I shift the primary stress to the first syllable (FOXgloves), indicating that I consider this to be a compound. During the time I've owned these gloves I've said the word 'foxglove', referring to the flower. And yet I've never, not once, realised that it would be hilariously witty to refer to them as foxgloves until this morning, when I wasn't even wearing them (it's proper winter glove weather now).

This is testament to the power of our language faculty to keep homophones apart. Puns wouldn't work, for instance, if we were constantly aware of similar-sounding strings. There's a joke which goes like this:
Two cats, one called OneTwoThree and one called UnDeuxTrois, were having a swimming race. Why did OneTwoThree win?
Because UnDeuxTrois cat sank! 
This joke works because UnDeuxTrois cat sank is exactly homophonous with un deux trois quatre cinq (the numbers from one to five in French) for many English speakers, not to mention this set of numbers being learnt pretty much as a 'chunk' or formulaic utterance by the 8-year-olds telling this joke, and so we are presented with a situation in which our brain is temporarily confused by the words, finds the humour and then has a good old chuckle.

Not all puns are exact homophones, and one of my favourite jokes is this one:
Why are there no aspirins in the jungle?
The parrots eat 'em all!
This pun relies on parrots eat 'em all sounding like paracetamol, but in fact I pronounce paracetamol  the other way, with an e as in bed (something like /ˌpæɹəˈsɛtəmɒl/ for the linguists), and my all is not like the ol syllable. Nevertheless, there are many puns that work because a string of sounds is precisely identical with two different meanings, and yet our brains don't ever confuse them until we are made to by the complicated joke set-up. Similarly, we don't ever seem to get homophonous words mixed up (pen, bank etc., where the words have two or more totally separate meanings). We even manage to think of different lexical categories from the same root as different (analyses is one I use in teaching: it can be the plural of the noun analysis or the 3rd person singular present tense form of the verb analyse). How we store and retrieve these is a question I'm going to let the brain scientists work on. 


  1. I don't understand the bit about shifting the stress, since the flower is also pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable.

    Though my sister, as a preschooler, called them beargloves.

    1. Nice :) The stress thing is not so easy to illustrate with this particular phrase, as it's always a compound - the flower is as well. Think about the difference between a blackbird (the species) and a black bird (for example, a crow). In the latter, the stress is usually on the 'bird'.