English Language & Linguistics
Linguistics Challenges: Wonderful Evenings
What linguistic process lies behind this joke?
‘I've had a wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it’ – Groucho Marx
You probably concluded that this joke involves a form of word play. The linguistic process underlying this joke is in fact a kind of transformation in one aspect of word meaning that linguists call ‘reference’. Any lexical item (word) gets its meaning from its ‘sense’ (the properties that characterise it) and its ‘reference’ (the set of things in the world to which it refers). Thus, the ‘sense’ of the word cat is (‘animate’, ‘feline’, ‘domestic pet’, etc.) whereas its ‘reference’ is the link to the object(s) in the world to which it can refer. We can actually define ‘reference’ in more detail than this: words can be said to have ‘specific’ reference (where we have a particular entity in mind, for example I like my dog) or ‘generic’ reference (where we have in mind not a specific item but a type or class of things, for example I like dogs). Sometimes the words alone do not tell us which reference is involved. Compare:
I’m looking for a house (uttered by someone browsing property ads)
I’m looking for a house (uttered by someone in the street holding an address)
In the first sentence the reference is ‘generic’ and in the second one it’s ‘specific’. In such examples we rely on the context in order to determine which kind of reference the speaker intended. We can also determine this from the neighbouring text:
I want to watch a match on Saturday. The Owls are playing Notts County.
In this example the first sentence is ambiguous. Does it mean any (football) match or a particular one? When we read the second sentence we realise the intended reference is specifc, not generic. So the text which follows has cleared up the referential ambiguity.
Now let’s return to our joke. Here Groucho plays with this referential ambiguity. On its own, the noun phrase ‘a lovely evening’ is most naturally interpreted as having a generic reference (fits the description of a lovely evening). We therefore assume this is his intended meaning when we hear the first part of Groucho’s utterance (i.e. ‘this evening was lovely’). However, the second half of his utterance forces us to re-