Leo Rosten once received this note from Groucho Marx:
Dear Junior: Please excuse me for not answering your letter sooner. But I have been so busy not answering letters lately that I have not been able to get around to not answering yours in time. Love, Groucho.
Like any language, sign language partakes in jokes, puns, and wordplay. Dorothy Miles’ poem “Unsound Views” observes that hearing people seem to be slaves to their telephones. In English, there’s no obvious pun in the next-to-last line, “They live to serve their telephone God.” But in British Sign Language it runs
THEY LIVE RESPECT THAT TELEPHONE
THIN-AERIAL-ON-HANDSET AERIAL-MOVES-UP GOD
“Here, the aerial on the telephone handset is signed with the ‘G’ handshape that refers to long, thin objects,” explains Rachel Sutton-Spence in Analysing Sign Language Poetry. “The BSL sign GOD is also made using a ‘G’ handshape, albeit in a different location, but when the aerial is moved up to the location where GOD is normally articulated, the pun elevates the telephone to the status of a god.”
One more: In Miles’ poem “Exaltation,” a stand of trees seems to part the sky “And let the peace of heaven shine softly through.” In the American Sign Language version, this can be glossed as ALLOW PEACE OF HEAVEN LIGHT-SHINES LIGHT/HAND-TOUCHES-HEAD. The form of the sign LIGHT is made with a fully open ‘5’ handshape, but in this context the handshape can be seen simply as a hand. “If LIGHT-TOUCHES-HEAD is interpreted as HAND-TOUCHES-HEAD, the obvious question is ‘Whose hand?’ and the obvious answer is ‘God’s.’ In many cultures, placing hands gently upon a person’s head is taken as a blessing.”
In a joke issue of the Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft in 1886, F.W. Findig offered an article on the constitution of benzene in which he finds that “zoology is capable of rendering the greatest service in clearing up the behavior of the carbon atom”:
Just as the carbon atom has 4 affinities, so the members of the family of four-handed animals possess four hands, with which they seize other objects and cling to them. If we now think of a group of six members of this family, e.g. Macacus cynocephalus, forming a ring by offering each other alternately one and two hands, we reach a complete analogy with Kekulé’s benzene-hexagon (Fig. 1).
Now, however, the aforesaid Macacus cynocephalus, besides its own four hands, possesses also a fifth gripping organ in the shape of a caudal appendix. By taking this into account, it becomes possible to link the 6 individuals of the ring together in another manner. In this way, one arrives at the following representation: (Fig. 2).
“It appears to me highly probable that a complete analogy exists between Macacus cynocephalus and the carbon atom,” Findig wrote. “In this case, each C-atom also possesses a caudal appendix, which, however, cannot be included among the normal affinities, although it takes part in the linking. Immediately this appendix, which I call the ‘caudal residual affinity’, comes into play, a second form of Kekulé’s hexagon is produced; this, being obviously different from the first, must behave differently.”
(From John Read, Humour and Humanism in Chemistry, 1947.)
“If you think that you can think about a thing, inextricably attached to something else, without thinking of the thing it is attached to, then you have a legal mind.” — Thomas Reed Powell
A lawyer advertised for a clerk. The next morning his office was crowded with applicants — all bright, many suitable. He bade them wait until all should arrive, and then ranged them in a row and said he would tell them a story, note their comments, and judge from that whom he would choose.
‘A certain farmer,’ began the lawyer, ‘was troubled with a red squirrel that got in through a hole in his barn and stole his seed corn. He resolved to kill the squirrel at the first opportunity. Seeing him go in at the hole one noon, he took his shot gun and fired away; the first shot set the barn on fire.’
‘Did the barn burn?’ said one of the boys.
The lawyer without answer continued: ‘And seeing the barn on fire, the farmer seized a pail of water and ran to put it out.’
‘Did he put it out?’ said another.
‘As he passed inside, the door shut to and the barn was soon in flames. When the hired girl rushed out with more water’ —
‘Did they all burn up?’ said another boy.
The lawyer went on without answer:–
‘Then the old lady came out, and all was noise and confusion, and everybody was trying to put out the fire.’
‘Did any one burn up?’ said another.
The lawyer said: ‘There that will do; you have all shown great interest in the story.’ But observing one little bright-eyed fellow in deep silence, he said: ‘Now, my little man, what have you to say?’
The little fellow blushed, grew uneasy, and stammered out:–
‘I want to know what became of that squirrel; that’s what I want to know.’
‘You’ll do,’ said the lawyer; ‘you are my man; you have not been switched off by a confusion and a barn burning, and the hired girls and water pails. You have kept your eye on the squirrel.’
Howard Shapiro chose an unusual way to present his paper “Fluorescent Dyes for Differential Counts by Flow Cytometry” at the 1977 meeting of the Histochemical Society — he sang it:
Blood cells are classified by cell and nuclear shape and size
And texture, and affinity for different types of dyes,
And almost all of these parameters can quickly be
Precisely measured by techniques of flow cytometry.
It’s hard to fix a cell suspension rapidly and stain
With several fluorochromes, and this procedure, while it plain-
Ly furnishes the data which one needs to classify,
May fade away, and newer, simpler, methods never dye. …
The full paper, 76 verses with figures and sheet music, is here.
In 1982, MIT physicist A.P. French received this letter from a writer in New Rochelle, N.Y.:
Being a safety minded individual I thought I would write you before experimenting on my own. Is it safe to mix Antipasto and Pasta together and could this be a future energy supply?
I believe that your thoughtful and interesting suggestion about the mixing of pasta and antipasto deserves some acknowledgment. This process might well be a significant energy source — but only, I think, intragastrically. I estimate that the digestion of 1 lb of the mixture would release energy equivalent to about 0.001 megawatt hours or 0.000001 kilotons of TNT. I would not foresee any unusual hazards.
(From Robert L. Weber, ed., Science With a Smile, 1992.)
n. a twinkling or winking with the eye
An example of the quick wit of W.S. Gilbert, from actor Rutland Barrington’s 1908 memoir:
“On one occasion, when rehearsing Pinafore, he said, ‘Cross left on that speech, I think, Barrington, and sit on the skylight over the saloon pensively.’ I did so, but the stage carpenter had only sewn the thing together with packthread, and when I sat on it it collapsed entirely, whereupon he said like lightning, ‘That’s expensively!'”