Wednesday, 26 March 2008

What's that funny sound?

The debate about listening to audiobooks instead of reading the real thing recurred last night when I was speaking to the writing group run by friend and fellow-writer Akasha Savage. Most people present seemed to agree that listening was no substitute for reading, except in certain circumstances – for example (as had happened to somebody known to a member of the group) if your hands were so arthritic that you could not turn the pages of a book.

But, catching up on a few blogs just now in a writing-break, I realised that sometimes I read and listen to blogs, when they are also available as podcasts.
For instance, I listen to the podcast of writer Charles Hodgson – Podictionary (‘the podcast for wordlovers’) but, as I recently discovered that the whole text of the podcast is also on Charles’ site as a daily blog, I also quite often read the information too, on those occasions when I want a quick break but don’t want to be completely idle. With words, you never know when something is going to spark an idea, after all... ahem.

And I’ve realised that listening and reading give me different things. Because, when I read I also hear. That’s because I’m a slow, auditory reader – I hear what I’m reading inside my head, as opposed to seeing words as shapes and just matching them up to meaning. Somehow, when you read things this way, they are funny in a way which, if you just heard them, they wouldn’t be. I don’t know why, but, for instance, in Monday’s Podictionary blog, Charles is writing about the word ‘stickler’ and, in the passage below, is talking about lexicographer Thomas Elyot.

'He had been working away at it for a while and gotten up to the letter M when Henry VIII took an interest. I think Thomas Elyot was of two minds about Henry’s enthusiasm. On the one hand it’s great to have the king recognize your work and want to help. But on the other hand when the king makes editorial suggestions your independence as an author goes out the window. Especially a king who is okay with beheadings etc.'

The bit which made me laugh was ‘a king who is okay with beheadings etc’. Why is it funny?
Years and years ago I tried – for a college literary group I belonged to – to try and define what made things funny in English. One of the things I hit on was incongruity – things not really belonging together. And, in the last sentence in the passage above, I think the phrase ‘okay with’ is incongruous in the context of the sentence. Don’t get me wrong, clearly Charles meant it to be incongruous, as well as being erudite and pithy, he’s a gently humorous writer/broadcaster who often has me smiling.
But, ‘being okay’ with something usually implies that it’s of no great consequence. You’re ‘okay with’ pizza for lunch as opposed to a sandwich, or with the Red Hot Chilis on the stereo as opposed to the Zutons. It’s impossible to ‘be okay’ with beheadings. That’s too momentous.

And then there’s that ‘etc’. Beheadings etc – that’s also funny. I don’t know why but it’s pretty easy to make me laugh using ‘etc’ – maybe it’s early exposure to Willans and Searle’s Down with Skool where ‘etc’ is unfailingly rendered as ‘ect’ and I always, subliminally, hear ‘ect’ when I read ‘etc’.
Or maybe it’s another of the things I identified in the ‘how English is funny’: under/over specificity. Either being too detailed about something or by suddenly shying away from whatever it is you’re talking about (as in Anderson and Miller’s WW2 skits where they’re speaking 21st century street slang in the cut-glass accent of the 1950s and say things like ‘going out on bombing raids and shit’). Incongruity and under-specificity.

Have any of you ever wondered what makes things funny in English?


David Isaak said...

You've hit some of the major causes of mirth. Sudden changes in diction can be funny, too--especially when the writer is being serious. For example, I saw a college paper once where the writer referred to "rape, beatings, murder, and other antisocial activities." He didn't understand why that phrase had me rolling on the floor. (I also find mixing concrete words with Latinate abstractions is often funny.)

Another trick is cliche/rhetoric twisting. Robert Benchley was fond of this in his essays:

"When you think about it, it's a wonder we've come as far as we have...or have we?"

"Yet many people make this mistake. Are you one? Are you two?"

Tim Stretton said...

David, your example reminds me of my favourite passage from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (if that implies I've read it all, I'm a liar...):

"The most scandalous charges were suppressed; the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest."

It's not quite the same effect, but then Gibbon is doing it deliberately.

Akasha Savage said...

Hi Alis. Thanks for Tuesday. It was enjoyed by all. :D

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