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

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Dear Alex,

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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

Jim Holt writes the "Egghead" column for Slate. He also writes for The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. Alexander Star is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. This fall, he will begin editing the "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe.

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