Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mind your language -- 3

Doesn't time fly when you're employing yourself? Unbelievably, it is now over two years since I wrote the second instalment in this series; in my mind, I thought it was about six months.

But I'm here now, ready to take up where I left off. Just to remind you of, or introduce you to, this series, I'm exploring different aspects of the English language in order to draw out its richness. In the first article I discussed the wilful abuse of the language. In the second, I discussed the inadvertent mangling of the language, as sometimes found on street signs and the like.That leads naturally onto this article, in which I'd like to explore the genius of Tommy Cooper -- not in his magic, which he is best known for, but his interpretation of the English language, to hilarious effect.

In case you're not aware, Tommy Cooper was an English magician who was famous for the fact that most of the time his tricks didn't work. In fact, he was highly regarded by other magicians, and would often delight in leading the audience to believe that a trick had failed miserably, only to completely turn the tables on them at the very last moment.

Cooper's speciality as far as language was concerned was taking the literal meaning of words and phrases. Here are some examples:

  • I saw an advert for headache tablets. Why would anyone want a headache?
  • I went to Margate [an English coastal resort] because a friend of mine told me it was good for rheumatism. So I went there and I got it.
  • While I was there I knocked on the door of a small hotel. A window opened and a lady put her head out and said "What do you want?" I said "I want to stay here". So she said "Well stay there" and went back inside.
  • I bought a greyhound the other day. A friend of mine said "What are you going to do with that?". I said "I'm going to race it." He said "By the look of it you'll beat it."
  • I went to the doctor last week and said "Doctor, I've broken my arm in several places." He said, "Well stop going to those places."
  • I went into the attic with my wife the other day. Dusty, covered in cobwebs. But she's good to the kids."

He also liked playing on words (homonyms), as in:

  • I always call my wife "dear": she's got antlers on the top of her head!
  • I was walking along last week and I saw a chicken. So I said "Cluck cluck cluck", and the chicken said "Cluck cluck cluck", and I said "Cluck cluck cluck", and then a policeman arrested me for using fowl language.

To fully appreciate all this, though, you have to seem him in action, so here are two clips which I hope you'll enjoy. They illustrate the points I've made here.

Next time, I'll be talking about the way cryptic crosswords mangle the language.

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