Punchline search

I started using the web back in the mid-90s, when the top search engine was Yahoo.  I loved its “ontology,” the categories and subcategories into which it divided sites.  I would sometimes click on a heading for a topic I didn’t know much about, then on a subheading that I knew even less about, and end up with links to a dizzying array of sub-sub-sub-categories I would never have dreamed existed.  It was great fun.  Long before the success of Google’s radically simple format forced Yahoo to scrap its ontology, however, I had tired of that little game, and simply typed text into the search window.  So the switch to Google was seamless for me.

I’ve been wondering if people would use Google differently today, and if the web would therefore be structured differently, if the first generation of Google users had not included such a high percentage of people whose first experience of search engines had involved a lot of time monkeying around in the labyrinth of Yahoo’ old ontology.  For people like me, the search window was a straightforward place for relatively serious business; the ontology was for goofing off.  So when Google came along, we may have used it as a tool to find fun things, but we didn’t see it as a toy in itself, not at first.

The other day I passed a few idle minutes on Google typing in punchlines, looking for the jokes that went with them.  I was surprised at how little I found.  After a moment of thought, I was surprised that I didn’t run a series of searches like that the first day I used Google.  Without the experience of the old Yahoo, I suspect I probably would have done so, and that a great many other people would have done so as well.  That initial burst of inquiries might have led to the creation of any number of sites matching jokes with punchlines.  Such sites might have become one of the major components of the web, up there with blogs devoted to people telling stories about their cats and conspiracy theories that begin in the 1960s and experiments with Photoshop.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”

The other day, I was eating an apple for breakfast.  My wife mentioned that a friend of ours was planning to stop by our house later that morning.  This friend is a medical doctor by occupation; I joked that I’d better stop eating the apple, since I didn’t want to keep him away.  Recognizing the play on the proverb “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” Mrs Acilius was kind enough to chuckle at my little witticism, as was our friend when I repeated the line to him.  Clearly, the proverb means something like “If you eat an apple each day, you will reduce the likelihood that you will require the professional attentions of a medical doctor.”  Since our friend’s visit was purely social, the humor of my remark arose from an ambiguity in the expression “keeps the doctor away.”  It wasn’t hugely funny, since this ambiguity is a purely formal one that has rarely confused anyone, but to the extent that it is funny at all, that’s what makes it so.

The next day, I was teaching a class.  I had a Twitter stream on the screen in front of the room, consisting of questions and answers that my students had tweeted to my work Twitter account (not to be confused with the Los Thunderlads Twitter account, or my own private Twitter account.)  There are other systems that enable students to send short items to a page that can be projected on a screen, but since Twitter is a public site and the students always have access to it, it has certain advantages.  In the middle of class, a student decided, for some reason, to share with the class a joke that has been whipping its way around Twitter of late: “A blowjob a day keeps the pimphand away.”  The class laughed, and I took advantage of the opportunity to remind them of the reasons why they should keep a separate Twitter account just for their classes.  I also spent a moment or two making fun of the offender for his need to share, then moved on.

It’s a shame the class wasn’t in lexical semantics.  If it were, I could have used the sentence “A blowjob a day keeps the pimphand away” as an example of some interesting points.  It scans the same as “”An apple a day keeps the doctor away”; “apple,” “blowjob,” “doctor,” and “pimphand” are all trochaic, and in each pair the second word has a more complex consonant structure than does the first.  So the two expressions sound very similar, but of course they differ dramatically in that one is among the most anodyne of expressions, while the other is doubly taboo, combining as it does an explicitly sexual term and an explicitly violent one.

“A blowjob a day keeps the pimphand away” also gets a laugh because it prompts us to think of similarities between the act of eating an apple and the act of performing oral sex on a man.  Each process takes a few minutes.  In each case, one performs a series of oral manipulations on an object that is, at the beginning of the process, bulbous in shape and about as long as it is wide, and in the course of those manipulations changes the object into a roughly cylindrical shape.  Also, an uneaten apple is covered with a peel, that can be any of a variety of colors, but that shows a variation of color tone around its exterior.  Once the peel is gone, the apple eater chews on the fruit inside, ending up with a mouth full of shapeless, but uniformly white, material.  The similarity to fellatio is perhaps obvious.

The relationship between “keeps the doctor away” and “keeps the pimphand away” is, perhaps, more interesting.  The phrase “the doctor” in the proverb calls up the image of a person who is a doctor; keeping that person away is supposed to mean preventing the need for a house-call.*  As my little joke of the other morning showed, the bare noun phrase “the doctor” does not by itself logically imply the idea of need for a house call, but could, to a person unfamiliar with the proverb, allow for the meaning “If you eat an apple, doctors will avoid you.”  By contrast, the phrase “the pimphand” evokes a very specific scenario.  A pimp demands that a prostitute hand over her earning to him, and slaps her in the face for refusing to do so.  Look at this image, from Urban Dictionary’s top-rated entry for “pimphand”:

Compare it with this comic strip, which Josh Fruhlinger described as featuring a “distinguished-looking senator, who isn’t so distinguished that he can’t slap an angry lake-bully with his pimp hand when he gets his dander up”:

The first picture is accepted as an illustration of the term “pimphand,” even though the man in it has few of the characteristics one associates with pimpdom, because the position of his hand suggests the sort of slap that the senator is administering in the comic strip.  So in place of the merely nominal “the doctor,” with its vague evocation of a gentle custom that is obsolete in the USA, we find an expression that may parse the same, but that definitely signifies a particular scenario of brutal violence.

*Some USA residents may never have heard of “house calls.”  This is when a doctor goes to a patient’s home to provide medical care.  These have been unknown in the USA for decades, my entire lifetime in fact, though I understand there are still places where they are common.