Striking a Blow for Brevity
An email conversation about the news of the day.
May 8 2002 11:03 AM

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Dear Alex,

Advertisement

Sorry for that earnest (and badly written) nonsense about the urban virtues of Boston in yesterday's dispatch. It seems to have been typed into my laptop by the super of my building, who let himself into my apartment to fix a leaky faucet while I was out getting lunch. Needless to say, he's from Boston.

For writers like me who aspire to be both silly and dull at the same time, there is no finer model than New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd. (Some say that "Maureen Dowd" is nothing but a pen-name under which Leon Wieseltier publishes his musings, but I can assure them that she really exists. In fact, I saw Maureen driving down Ninth Street just the other day. On the back of her car was a bumper-sticker that said OP-ED COLUMNISTS DO IT TWICE A WEEK.)

In her column in today's Times, Dowd concludes with the words, "Brevity is the soul of life." That is so true. I thought of the great Regency aphorist Archilochus Jones, who wrote, "Almost all human affairs are tedious. Everything is too long. Visits, dinners, concerts, plays, speeches, acts of oral sexual congress, pleadings, essays, sermons, are too long."

To strike a blow for brevity, I have been trying to come up with some extremely short things. Here, for example, is what I believe is the shortest possible play, a psychosexual drama in three monosyllabic words:

Masochist: Hurt me.
Sadist: No.

How short can a joke be? Clearly, there can be a joke of only two words. For example: "Pretentious? Moi?" But is a one-word joke logically possible? I have been trying to come up with a specimen for some time, and the best I have been able to do is: "Kalamazoo." What makes this name of a city in southwestern Michigan, pop. 79,722, intrinsically funny? I sent it to Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT, a distinguished linguist (and ardent amateur jokester!) for analysis. He replied by e-mail:

Three short steps in [a] led in by three alphabetically consecutive consonants [k,l,m], occlusive, liquid, labial, respectively (that is, progressing from posterior to anterior buccal cavity), act as a ladder, rising to the highest note in the English register [u], which slides in on us over the glistening parquet of the soft sibilant [z], puckering up the mouth in gentle mockery of itself.

Do Maureen Dowd's columns send you off in search of one-word jokes, Alex? Or do you possibly have a one-word reply to all this? (No points for "bollocks.")

Yours truly,
Jim

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Global Marches Demand Action on Climate Change

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Americans' Inexplicable Aversion to the 1990s
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.