Friday, October 19, 2012

Once More Unto the SNOOTs

Last night, the presidential candidates participated in the annual Al Smith dinner, doing their respective best to impersonate stand-up comics. No fear, I will not critique those performances here. I simply note that watching them reminded me of a lesson I got recently from a fantastic former student when the tables were turned and he was the one critiquing my work. He reminded me that, if you have to explain your references too explicitly, you risk sounding pedantic—offending those who “got it” without needing any special explication. When it comes to humor, one often relies on an audience of insiders who “get it.” For instance, if you don’t keep up with the world of political pundits, you would not get the reference President Obama made last night to the tingle that once shot up Chris Matthews’ leg; but the President was speaking to a ballroom full of press people who know MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and well remember all about that tingle he got four years ago. So, at least in the context of that audience, the President could count on the joke hitting home.

Much of Shakespeare’s humor depends on at least some members of his audience possessing a certain kind of inside knowledge: a knowledge associated with SNOOTs. (For more posts on SNOOTs:  and For example, you have to be rather sophisticated about language to get most of Shakespeare’s scatological puns. And the guy was a big fan of using malapropisms as a symbol of incmopetence. Perhaps only those in the SNOOT contingent even know what a malapropism is; in any case, you can only see how malapropisms are funny if you know that a verbal mistake is being made. As an illustration, consider the little snippet from Measure for Measure that I used to introduce my last post in which the local constable mistakenly uses the word “benefactor” when he means “malefactor.” The humor comes from recognizing the word switcheroo in the face of the character’s own earnest ignorance.
Come to think of it, Shakespeare must have had some special experience with a member of law enforcement who was peculiarly challenged in this way. In Much Ado about Nothing, “Officer Dogberry” suffers from the same syndrome:
First, who think you the most desertless man to be constable?

Hugh Otecake, sir, or George Seacole; for they can write and read.

Come hither, neighbour Seacole. God hath blessed you with a good name: to be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.

Both which, master constable,--

You have: I knew it would be your answer. Well, for your favour, sir, why, give God thanks, and make no boast of it; and for your writing and reading, let that appear when there is no need of such vanity. You are thought here to be the most senseless and fit man for the constable of the watch; therefore bear you the lantern. This is your charge: you shall comprehend all vagrom men; you are to bid any man stand, in the prince's name.

Back when I was in drama school, I was told that the word “malapropism” actually came from a character in a play by Richard Sheridan, The Rivals (1775). In this play, the haughty character, “Mrs. Malaprop,” frequently lets fly with malapropisms while making pronouncements about all kinds of things, e.g., she directs a younger woman to “promise to forget this fellow—to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.” Wikipedia, however, suggests that giving Sheridan responsibility for naming the term may have been undue; at least Wikipedia presently claims that “malapropism” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary as earlier as 1630. Yet I prefer the story that gives the dramatists all the credit: suggesting that Shakespeare captured the syndrome and then Sheridan pushed the device even further by creating a character who could hardly utter a sentence without some aggressive display of verbal ignorance, which then gave the syndrome a “local habitation and a name.” [A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.1]

Whatever the truth may be, malapropisms—intentional or otherwise—are funny only if you are a language insider. Talk about a translation challenge! And, really, a great deal of humor requires that the audience appreciate allusions to fairly exclusive knowledge. Jokes based on such allusions serve as a shortcut, packing a lot of information into a pithy form. The problem arises when you cannot count on your audience to get the reference. While law students can count on each other to understand why naming a men’s intramural football team “Mens Rea” is funny, the joke would fall flat outside their little (nerdy) community.

Relying on humorous allusions to make a point is increasingly challenging as your audience becomes more diverse or opaque—although the pay-off is big if you can score a connection. This is, perhaps, something to ponder whenever trying to infuse legal writing or texts about legal writing with ostensibly witty references. . . .  

Sorry. Talking to myself again—as a means to dissolve a linguistic mystery and thereby debut my own allusions.

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