Tall Tail, and Other Funny Phrases

January 27, 2011 at 8:16 am 4 comments

Tonight, I used the phrase “a tall tale” while talking to my sons, and I realized immediately that I had confused them. I spent the next several minutes trying to explain the difference between tale and tail. “There’s T‑A‑L‑E,” I said, “which is a type of story. A tall tale is a story that isn’t true.”

“And T‑A‑I‑L is a short tail,” Eli offered.

That made me laugh. Eli wasn’t really trying to offer a distinction between tale and tail. Rather, I think he was positing that since tall is associated with tale, then short must be associated with the other tail.

This got me to thinking — there are a lot of English idioms that would be a whole lot funnier, if one of the words were to be replaced by a synonym. (A synonym, according to Burt Bacharach, is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you first thought of.) For instance, based on Eli’s suggestion:

A short tale about a tall tail could be, perhaps, a children’s book about the posterior part of a giraffe.

Okay, so that one’s not really that funny. But I generated a list of others (below), and I think some of them are pretty damned hysterical.

Before I present the list, though, an apology. This is a math jokes blog, and this post isn’t about math jokes. But I’ve often contended that mathy folks are good at grammar because we like rules and systems, whereas literary folks are good at writing because they like words. So perhaps the implicit joke in this post is a pot‑shot at literary folks — if only their love of words followed more rules, then such linguistic silliness wouldn’t be possible.

If you’re greatly distressed about this, here’s a math pun involving a synonym. How do you tell one bathroom full of statisticians from another? Check the p-value.

Anyway, the disclaimer above reminds me of a brainteaser:

The five-letter sequence eight occurs at the end of many words and is responsible for at least two different sounds: in weight it sounds like “ate,” but in height it sounds like “ite.” What four-letter sequence, which occurs at the end of 26 words (according to More Words), is responsible for at least six different sounds? (I’ll post the answer in the comments later this week, unless someone beats me to the punch.)

Okay, on with the list…

The belle of the bawl continued to sob as the bell of the ball struck midnight.

Scientists were able to breed a pigeon with a zero (a true cross product). Two days later, this creature was bested by Mother Teresa in a race. The headline in a local newspaper read:

Newspaper Headline

It took him over an hour to strap Mickey to the roof of his station wagon. As he hummed along with the car tune playing on the radio, he thought to himself, “Gee, I sure can carry a toon.”

I ate an Easter sundae on an ice cream Sunday

Easter Sundae

She won two, and I won one, too.

He ate a clock at eight o’clock.

The farmer’s wife said to the fruit-growing sheep, “The two of ewe make quite a pear!” (Yes, this violates the format since it only uses each synonym once, but I thought it was just too funny not to include.)

On the supermarket isles of the South Pacific, you’ll find olives in the Greek aisles.

The guiding principals rarely made mature decisions, so the teachers held on to their middle school principles.

When two members of opposite sects — one Presbyterian, the other Episcopalian — have religious sex, do they scream, “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh… my… God…”?

The florist’s flowers were worth fifty scents, and her change purse contained the cent of a woman.

Good knight,” said Batman in the dark night.

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Was Darrell Huff at the State of the Union Address? 10s, anyone?

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lisa Downing  |  January 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    The four letter combination with six different sounds is ough which sounds like a long o in though, off in cough, uff in tough, ow in bough, ew in through, and a short o in bought. I realize that the last one does not end in ough, but I can’t think of an example for the short o sound that does.

    Reply
  • 2. venneblock  |  January 27, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Lisa — Correct in identifying the four letters ough. But as you pointed out, bought doesn’t end with ough, and that was one of the criteria. To my knowledge, there are no words in which the ough at the end makes a short o sound. However, there is one other sound made by these letters.

    Reply
  • 3. Shirley  |  January 27, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    uhf – Tough
    oh – Though
    oo – Through
    ow – Bough
    off – Cough
    owe – Dough

    bonus:
    uhp – Hiccough

    Reply
  • 4. Chad T. Lower  |  January 28, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    I would say that though and dough end with the same sounds (and dictionary.com agrees with me), meaning the bonus is now required.

    Of course, that reminds me of the two other teasers:
    ghoti hook
    and the common dog name phydeux

    Reply

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The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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