On her website Lang 1011 my highly steamed2, 3 editorial colleague Madalena Cruz-Ferreira prompts:
Try now to think about jokes involving structural ambiguity (morphological structure, syntactic form or syntactic function).
As before, explain the source of the humour, in an unambiguous manner!
While the answer I gave on her website correctly explained the structural ambiguity present in the joke, it was far from an exhaustive analysis of the source of the humour. I here expand on it to present a more thorough explanation of the phenomena involved.
A man is having his garden landscaped, and he says to the gardener “I want decking over here.” So the gardener flattens him with a spade.
The ambiguity arises because “decking” (wooden paving resembling a boat deck4) sounds like a present participle. The expression “X wants/
needs Ying”5, 6 can be used to mean “X should be Yed”. Finally, the word “deck” can be used as a verb meaning “to strike someone down”7—“flatten” is used in the same sense.
Therefore “I want decking over here,” can mean either “I want wooden flooring over here,” or “I should be struck down over here.”
We must now examine the pragmatics of the utterance. “I want wooden flooring over here,” is clearly a more reasonable interpretation than “I should be struck down over here,” as few people want to be violently assaulted.8 The context of the utterance
However, we are left wondering why the gardener would choose the clearly unreasonable interpretation. Marx9 would suggest that the client’s greater wealth and status places him in a position of undeserved privilege over the gardener, whose interpretation of the sentence constitutes an act of revolution against his bourgeoise oppressor. In this interpretation, the humour derives from Schadenfreude.10 JRR Tolkien, however would dispute this.11 In The Lord of The Rings, Frodo’s gardener, Samwise Gamgee,12 is his most loyal friend, and eventually emerges as the true hero of the story. For Tolkien, therefore, the heroism of the Working Class is necessarily founded on loyalty rather than rebellion.
This excursion into literary theory has therefore shed little, if any, light on the matter.13 We must therefore reexamine the premises of the joke. Why do we consider it more reasonable that the client wants wooden paving than a blow on the head? Consider the following. The purpose of a garden is to grow plants. Paving parts of the garden reduces the space available to grow plants, and is thus antithetical to the purpose of gardening. A man who wants such a thing is clearly a philistine, ignorant of the finer points of horticulture. It is probable that his entire interest in gardening comes from watching populist TV programmes, most likely in the hope of seeing the presenter’s dimmocks. And that’s why he wants decking.
1 “Language Play IV”, Lang101, May 7th, 2013.
2 cf., Milligan et al., The Goon Show, passim.
3 Any connotation of drunkenness in this expression should be taken as implying nothing more than that I like making scurrilous remarks about my fellow satirical linguists.14, 15
4 This was popularized in the UK by Ground Force, a television programme in which the presenters would enter somebody’s property without their knowledge while they were away and make over their garden.16 One of the presenters was a builder,17 so there always had to be decking.
5 This has nothing to do with the Taoist concepts of Yin and Yang.18
6 American members of the SpecGram editorial team have expressed the opinion that “needs Ying” is more felicitous than “wants Ying”. However, I’m English, and “wants Ying” works fine for me.19, 20
7 The etymology of this expression is of some relevance here. It derives from causing someone to hit the deck, in the manner of an unsuccessful boxer.
8 Apparently there are some people who like that sort of thing, but my intellectual curiosity reaches its limits at this point.
9 Various tiresome screeds.
10 My psychiatrist had it coming.21
11 While Tolkien is often identified with a traditionalist worldview,22 he is not entirely unsympathetic to Marxist theory. The Dwarves in The Hobbit wish to recover the wealth they laboured to create from an oppressor who has taken it by force, and the song they sing before setting out23 fits very nicely to the tune of The Red Flag.24, 25
12 Later known as Samwise Gardner.
13 This should not be surprising, given that Literary Theory seldom sheds any light on anything.
14 If you can dish it out, you ought to be able to take it.
15 For further examples, see “The SpecGram Inquisition
16 Such “breaking and decorating”26 type shows were popular at the time.
17 Another presenter27 was a specialist in water features, so there always had to be one of those too.
18 Unless you’re a Taoist, in which case everything has something to do with Yin and Yang.
19 And since decking is a luxury rather than a necessity, “want” makes more sense than “need” here.28
20 But “needs Yed” is just dreadful.29
21 He never should have said that about my mother.
22 Feminist critics, in particular, note that none of Tolkien’s main female characters meet each other at any point during The Lord of the Rings.30 However, such an encounter would lead to Tolkien violating the Maxim of Quantity even more than he does already.31, 32
23 “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold”
24 Or “O Tannenbaum”, if you prefer Christmas trees to revolution.
25 Well, that’s how I sing it.
26 cf., Pratchett, T, Reaper Man.
27 Who seemed to have an aversion to underwear.33, 34
28 Although it’s not as if anything else in this article makes sense.
29 Americans. Bah!
30 i.e., it fails the Bechdel test.
31 Tolkien fundamentally misunderstood the Maxim of Quantity. He thought it meant “the more the merrier”.35, 36
32 There is also the issue of what they would talk about. If Arwen and Eowyn were to meet, a logical topic of conversation would be the latter’s defeat of the Witch King of Angmar. However, the Witch King of Angmar was a man.
33 This may have been a major contributing factor to the show’s popularity.
34 The fact that her given name37 was an item of bawdy slang38, 39 and her surname40 became one as a result41 didn’t help.
35 Pun not intentional, but I’m keeping it.
36 Although I’ve got some room to talk, given that this article has hit the Maxims of Quantity and Relevance over the head with a spade and buried them under the decking.
38 Along with 97.36% of the English lexicon.42, 43
39 New Scientist would refer to this as “Nominative Determinism”.
41 Although did sound like one to start with.38
42 cf., Chaucer, G (passim); Shakespeare, W44 (passim).
43 This footnote is referenced twice.43, 45
44 For those who claim that someone else46 wrote Shakespeare’s plays, I can only say that that idea’s too daft even for SpecGram.
45 This footnote references itself.45, 47
46 Such as the Earl of Oxford.48
48 Who died before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written.
49 And not just to bulk up the number of footnotes.50
50 This is a lie.50, 51, 52
51 Aha! I’ve invoked the Epimenides Paradox!53
52 Actually, the excessive number of increasingly convoluted and irrelevant footnotes is an attempt to raise the intrinsically unfunny act of explaining a joke to Shandean54 levels of absurdity.55
53 At least this footnote doesn’t reference itself.50
54 A reference to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne, a novel best described as an attempt to write an autobiography by a man who’s completely incapable of sticking to the point.
55 Now I’m explaining jokes in the middle of an article about explaining a joke. Meta-
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