AUTHOR: Blake, Barry
TITLE: Playing with words
SUBTITLE: Humour in the English language
Kristyl Kepley, Department of Languages, Linguistics and Comparative
Literatures, Florida Atlantic University
Chapter 1 addresses the nature of humor, with a quick description of some verbal
qualities which lead to humor: homophony, polysemy, transpositions, satire, and
Chapter 2 is a somewhat successful exposition of what people joke about. Blake
discusses sociological and cultural implications and influences on humor: the
necessity of shared cultural knowledge for humor ''to work,'' the widespread use
of others' misfortune as a source of humor, and the near-universality of the
topics used as the foundation for insults. Blake also makes an interesting link
between Scottish ''flytings'' and African American ''dozens.''
''Where humor is to be found'' is the title of chapter 3. This is a five page
chapter explaining the differences between professional humorists (e.g. stand-up
comics, Middle Age jesters) and amateur humorists (e.g. the jokester that stands
by the office water cooler). Blake mentions the rampant use of word play in
modern advertising; but leaves this rich field unexplored.
Chapter 4 covers morphology and its relation to humor. While much of the
information regarding the creation of words through blends and compounds will be
well-known to most academic readers, there are some enjoyable moments: such as
when Blake (57) lists some of the winning words from the _Washington Post's_
''Mensa Invitational'' at which participants change a single letter in an existing
word to render a new word with a new definition (e.g. Intaxacation: 'Euphoria at
getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start
with'), and when Blake (61) discusses the recent proliferation of ''Mc''-words,
which aim to describe ''an inferior alternative to a traditional product or
service'' (e.g. McMedicine: 'a walk-in clinic in a retail environment where one
gets quick treatment from nurses for routine ailments').
The following two chapters deal with puns and grammatical ambiguities that
result in verbal humor. These chapters are full of examples that might be
helpful to some researchers. Chapter 7, entitled ''Jokes,'' is a listing and
explanation of joke types which includes a description and example of everything
from ''blonde jokes'' to ''knock, knock jokes'' to ''how many x's does it take to
change a light bulb? jokes.'' The next chapter provides many examples of ''wit''
but no further insights. Chapter 9 briefly explains how the ambiguity of
language requires that the hearer often work out the intended meaning of a
statement on their own.
''Errors'' seeks to explain how humor arises from the accidental misuse of words.
In this chapter, Blake (133) invokes some linguistic scholarship, as when he
notes that ''there is also evidence that many slips of the tongue are purely the
result of malfunctions in forming speech''; yet, there are no scholarly citations
provided as evidence. The final complete chapter describes different types of
rhymes--from children's verses to limericks.
The back cover description of this book classifies it as ''a book to be read for
information and for fun.'' Blake does cover virtually every conceivable type of
verbal humor, but this work lacks the serious and thorough treatment of the
topic which would render it informative for a linguistic scholar.
The present volume stands in contrast to Blake's other scholarly works, though
it should be noted that he never suggests that this book is intended to meet the
needs of academics. More often than not, content seems out of place in chapters
and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of chapters in the
book. This may be due, in large part, to the fact that each chapter ends
abruptly with no conclusions or synthesis of material. Often, content that could
have been delivered in five pages is beaten out over twenty.
In short, for readers who seek a superficial introduction to 'word play,'
Blake's book is fine. For academics seeking an in-depth exposition, the most
helpful element of Blake's book is the ''References and Further Reading'' section,
which lists several works better suited to the serious scholar.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Kristyl Kepley is a PhD student in Comparative Studies at Florida Atlantic
University. Her current research deals with the integrity and vitality of
Haitian Creole among young adults in South Florida. This work reflects her
primary interests: creole development, sociolinguistic variation and language
contact. She is also the editor and co-founder of BOCA~The South Florida Journal
of Linguistics, a peer-reviewed journal based at FAU.