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The Chicken Joke

“Why did the Chicken cross the road?”

“To get to the other side!”

It’s simple, straightforward, and so well-know as to be a cliche. It has spawned a number of related jokes:

“Why did the turkey cross the road?”

A) “Because it was the chicken’s day off!” B) “Because he was stuck to the chicken!” Both are common answers here, and both rely on knowing the chicken joke first to be anywhere on the same continent as actual humor.

The problem with cliches, as George Orwell points out in his essay “On Politics and the English Language,” is that we stop thinking about them and what they actually say. We rely on the chicken joke as short-hand for really bad, groan-worthy humor (see Fozzie Bear of the Muppets) without stopping to ask “wait, why is this even considered a joke?”

The fact is, it isn’t a joke. Not really. If we asked “why did Doug cross the road?” the answer is obvious, and the same as in the chicken joke. There’s really only one reason anyone or anything crosses a road, and that’s “to get to the other side.” So why a chicken? Because chicken is a fun word to say, and the image of a chicken is sloppy shorthand for funny (you don’t see many rubber sheep or ducks, do you? But the rubber chicken? Another comedy cliche). Don’t ask me why chickens are funny, but they are.

And therein lies the secret of the chicken joke. Like most simple question-based jokes, it contains a set-up and a punchline. The set-up typically contains a question, designed to stump the listener (How is a raven like a writing desk?), and the answer to the question is the punchline, where the terrible pun or unexpected surprise is. The chicken joke flips the script on this formula, while still operating within it: the only thing remotely funny about it is in the set-up, the fact that it contains a chicken. This fact primes the listener for an unusual answer–something about “poultry in motion” for instance– which never happens. We get the most mundane answer possible, instead.

It’s actually a subtle form of irony: jokes rely on the listener knowing how jokes work and create an expectation for the punchline. The chicken joke subverts that expectation, by presenting n odd question with a mundane answer. It is not the answer we expect, because the chicken (forgive my mixed metaphor) is a red herring. Humor is about subverting expectations, and the chicken joke takes this to another level, subverting the very expectations of the medium it is being presented it. There’s no pun, no groan-inducing word-play or nonsensical answer, just the simple statement of the obvious.

The chicken joke deserves more respect. It seems stupid, ridiculous, cliched. But there’s a lot more going on once you actually examine it. It is one of the simplest, and possibly oldest, forms of meta-humor. It is a joke not about chickens and roads, but about jokes themselves.

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Rip van Winkle… 2000!

I’m teaching an 8-week course on early American Lit for the Summer (via Zoom, which I should probably also post about at some point), and we just read Rip van Winkle. In attempting to create some context, I asked the class to imagine a modern version; someone who had fallen into a coma in mid-2000 and just woken up now.

I felt my age, as I realized that many of them weren’t born in 2000, or were so young at the time that it was meaningless. The exercise, therefore didn’t go over very well, but it helped me, at least.

This modern Rip wouldn’t know anything about the Bush presidency, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama presidency, SARS, the bird flu, the swine flu, YouTube, the entire concept of social media, reality TV, online streaming, Amy Winehouse’s entire musical career and her death, wifi, smartphones, Uber… Hell, Google had only been around for about two years and Amazon mostly still operated as a bookseller (they began selling other media in ’98).

And then he wakes up to a world that’s burning due to global warming, is in the middle of a pandemic, but has citizens in the street despite that protesting police murdering them, a president he knows as a New York weirdo who only let them film Home Alone 2 in his hotel if they put him in the movie and who apparently wants to build an actual wall around the country to keep certain people from getting in…

He’d probably encounter an Alexa or Siri and assume that Skynet had taken over (having come from a wold that only had two Terminator movies(not to mention two Jurrasic Park movies)) and he was now in a dystopian future. And I’m not sure that he’d be wrong.

And none of this even begins to describe the horror he experiences when he tries to go to the airport and fly somewhere else with only an expired driver’s license as ID.

I mean, his biggest fear when he fell into a coma was the Y2K bug. Just try to imagine what waking up to this mess would be like.

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Irregardless

I know that title is making you cringe, grit your teeth and prepare to yell at me about how “that’s not a word!”

Bear with me a moment.

“irregardless” is a word. People use it, and have been for a long time. So long, in fact, that it has developed a linguistically distinct usage from “regardless.” This is why it is in your dictionary.

Dictionaries are NOT arbiters of English usage “as it is meant to be used” but repositories of English “as it IS used.” The language changes and evolves, and dictionaries try to keep up with that. Hell, “twerk” and “fleek” have definitions and those are words that don’t tell you ANYTHING about what they mean by themselves; at least it’s easy to figure out what “iregardless”means.

All that said, I still hate this word and do my best to avoid it. I catch myself using it occasionally because it just plain sounds better in certain situations/sound patterns.

Hell, I don’t recall anybody complaining about this word until we heard President George W. Bush use it,and then everybody hated it, mostly so we could have one more example for “our president is an idiot” lists. That is a terrible reason to hate a word.

Yes, in most cases you should use “regardless” and doing otherwise will get you lectured by pedants with nothing better to do with their lives but “correct” your usage. If you can put up with that, please feel free to continue using “irregardless.” It IS a real word, whether they like it or not.

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Peer Reviews

I teach college composition. Every semester, as the due date for the final research essay approaches, I take a day of class to devote to peer reviews.

Actually, its more than that, as we practice the process first so they have a model of what to do.

The point is: this is an opportunity to get help with a process that most of them find difficult, and i can usually tell the difference between those who participated and those who didn’t when I’m grading the essays.

And yet, despite my telling them this, despite the obvious benefit that it presents, this is always, always, the least attended day of class. I don’t know how much of it is fear/anxiety about sharing their writing with each other, how much is the fact they haven’t started writing the essay (never mind having a full draft), and how much is end of the semester burnout (I feel it, too).

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Goodbye, W.S. Merwin

I was introduced to the works of W.S. Merwin in a college writing class, and fell in love with his symbolism, style, and economy of language. His work has had a significant influence on my own.

I was lucky enough, many years later, to see and hear him read his work at the Library of Congress while he was poet laureate.

He will be missed.

For the Anniversary of My Death
By W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

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