on knock-knock jokes & word origins

Before moving on to the second part of my citrus series, I want to take a break from specific etymologies to reflect on them as such. Last post, I ended on quite the corny pun: “Orange you glad I didn’t squeeze them all into one?” This, of course, evokes a classic lemon of a knock-knock joke:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Orange.

Orange who?

Orange you glad I didn’t say “banana”?

Two things here. First, I don’t know whether I should be embarrassed or proud that a knock-knock joke just consumed so much space in this post. I’m going with both. Second, I think this groaner actually has a few things to say about the nature of language.

Recursion

The joke is recursive in nature: It unfolds  by repeating itself, output as its input, part as whole, like a picture of a picture of that same picture, creating an endless, infinite loop. In linguistics, this whole recursive thing is often called nesting. Here is an example:

I plucked the lemon.

In English, I can describe the lemon by applying some simple rules:

I plucked the yellow lemon.

I plucked the very yellow lemon

I plucked the ripe, oblong, and very yellow lemon.

Very is nested within yellow, which are together nested within lemon. As are ripe and oblong.

We can apply more rules, too. We can add whole clauses.

I plucked the very yellow lemon that grew on the tree.

I plucked the very yellow lemon that grew on the tree that was tended by the farmer who owned several acres in Southern California.

And I could go on ad infinitum. This is not a particularly well-written sentence and would be a lot to keep track of in conversation, but you can understand it perfectly well. Clause after clause is nested within lemon. For many, this recursion, this successive application of a rule, is a fundamental and definitive feature of language. And for many, it’s this very recursion—taking a few simple words and combining them endlessly through a few simple rules—that can explain the evolution of language’s complexity out a few simple grunts and gestures.

Origins

But I’m more so interested in the origin of the joke. Who first made it up? How does it get taken up and spread so widely, such that I, as a primary-grade student years ago, learned it from a childhood friend in the back of a minivan on the way home from school, at once mind-blown and vexed by it?

Certainly, there was a moment in time in which a single person conjured up the wisecrack. Or there there were multiple persons who separately made up and told the joke. One person tells a friend, who tells another, who tells a group of people, and so on. It gets passed on, it gets passed down. Soon, it has diffused, propagated, tipping-pointed. But as to the exact person, the exact moment of its creation? We don’t know. (Except in the case of the George Zimmerman trial. But, no, I’ll be curious to see how our digital age of hyper-documentation changes what we know about such phenomena.)

I think word origins are quite like this. True, sometimes we have direct evidence for the origin of words, such as blurb or yahoo or, drunk as we are these days on portmanteaux, cronut. But, for so much of our language, words, well, emerge. Take the or cut or pig. Their origins cannot be marked by birth (or death, for that matter), but by a continuous and gradual growth and decay of existing sounds and forms, aberrations from or innovations on those sounds and forms diffusing through a speech community until it is as if the word has always existed.

Changes invisible to itself, like a middle-aged man who put on 10 pounds or gradually went bald, a child who grew a few inches over a summer, a college student whose chest hair thickened—constantly around ourselves, we do not always notice these organic changes. (Until Uncle Jack, who you have not seen in a few years, sidles up at a Christmas party, slurring, “Looks like you put on a few pounds, Billy.”)

Words also originate by evolving imperceptibly through subtle (and, sometimes, not-so-subtle) changes. And so, in hunting for where words come from and how they change, we are like evolutionary scientists, looking at the clues of written records and changes in sound and structure and semantics. We are looking in patterns of formation distinct to the grammar of a language and patterns of cognition like metaphor. We are looking in forces of physiology like articulatory economy and borrowings resulting from cultural contact.

And, in my weird way here at the Mashed Radish, we are looking at chest hair and knock-knock jokes.

m ∫ r ∫

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