Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Tweetle Poodles and Beetle Noodles

Posted by Neal on January 23, 2005

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss is one of my favorite books to read to Doug and Adam. Adam likes repeating the “goo goose” section, and after Doug had mastered his /l/ phoneme, I recorded him reciting the “Luke Luck likes lakes” bit. But my favorite part is the “tweetle beetle” bit at the end. I’ve had a question about it for a while, though, and I’m going to settle it right here and now.

OK, so the segment starts like this:

When tweetle beetles fight, it’s called a
[[tweetle beetle] battle].

So far, so good. I can follow the compounding. Next:

And when they battle in a puddle, it’s a
[[tweetle beetle] [puddle battle]].

We’re still good. Now we come to:

And when tweetle beetles battle with paddles in a puddle, they call it a
[[tweetle beetle] [puddle [paddle battle]]].

Now we turn the page and come to:

When beetles battle beetles in a puddle paddle battle and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle, they call this a
[[tweetle beetle]
   [[[bottle puddle] [paddle battle]] muddle]]

And turning the page again, we learn that:

When beetles fight these battles in a bottle with their paddles and the bottle’s on a poodle and the poodle’s eating noodles, they call this a
muddle puddle tweetle poodle beetle noodle bottle paddle battle.

That line always trips me up, and I’ve suspected that it wasn’t just due to the extra length of the compound, but I couldn’t sit there and parse it out with the boys waiting for me to finish the book. I’m parsing it out now, though, and I see that I’m right: Dr. Seuss’s syntax is wrong. Now that I think about it, it’s pretty obvious, with the separating of tweetle from beetle and poodle from noodle. (Can I say, “Now that I think about it, it’s pretty obvious,” or is that a contradiction?) I think what Dr. Seuss actually meant was:

[
 [noodle poodle]
 [
  [tweetle beetle]
  [
   [[bottle puddle] [paddle battle]]
   muddle
  ]
 ]
]

This would have fit just as well as the actual phrase Dr. Seuss used, so I wonder why he didn’t use it. Was it to show that even Mr. Fox himself (the speaker) got confused sometimes? Was it just for the fun of creating a cross-serial dependency with tweetle, beetle, poodle, and noodle?

11 Responses to “Tweetle Poodles and Beetle Noodles”

  1. I assume Seuss did it intentionally. After all, the point is that both the situation and the phrase to describe are a “muddle.” And the mixing of the words is almost too perfect for it not to have been intentional. Muddle puddle? Tweetle poodle? Beetle noodle? I’ll bet Seuss started off with your correct-syntax phrase and then deliberately screwed it up.

  2. Anonymous said

    It’s just a kids book! You dont have to psychoanalize it.And the way you put it is easier to say then the way Dr. Seuss said it. He wrote it for children, he didn’t expect for parents to study his writing…

  3. Anonymous said

    I love the book, especially the part about tweetle beetles, however I find it impossible to read without my tonge falling out off my mouth, yet much to my surprise my son (5) was able to read this with no problems what so ever, I assume this is because as an adult we read several words ahead of ourselfs and children read the words as they come to them so they are thinking what they are saying not what is coming next!

  4. Dr Seuss said

    Intentional. Teaches the ability to say tongue twisting words. Dr. Seuss is all about rhyme and rythm games, and mixing it up helps your mind grow.

  5. […] first parsing: Forming a compound noun out of other compound nouns is fine (consider for example, [[tweetle beetle] [[bottle puddle] [paddle battle]]]), but forming one out of a noun (ring) and a phrase (pierced ear) is a little strange, smearing the […]

  6. ryleenus said

    Two years later…

    I am an undergrad taking Applied English Grammar. I am creating a Transformational-Generative Diagram on the sentence “When beetles battle beetles in a puddle paddle battle and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle they call this a tweetle beetle bottle puddle battle muddle.” I was originally going to diagram the full sentence mentioned above, but couldn’t fit it all on the page. I just found it interesting that this sentence has officially been looked at linguistically at least twice.

  7. alex said

    i think he did it to confuse the reader with the similar spellings, because
    muddle puddle tweetle poodle beetle noodle bottle paddle battle
    is harder to read than
    noodle poodle tweetle beetle bottle puddle paddle battle muddle, and it kinda rhymes better since your version has muddle at the end which doesnt rhyme with battle, or paddle at all

  8. djlocke said

    The key phrase, I think, is “they call this”. What they call it is not necessarily what it is. A name need not be grammatically or logically correct. A barber shop quartet may call themselves the Mick Jagger Six, even though there are only 4 of them.

  9. Neal said

    Djlocke: True enough. A cop-out, but true nonetheless.

  10. holly said

    When you read the book again, consider that chicks and bricks and blocks and clocks all get mixed up, too. It’s the point, I think. Otherwise, why put the warning to the reader about it being a hard book?

  11. […] of fizzled out, which was too bad. As regular readers know, we do a lot of reading aloud here, from Dr. Seuss and books about barnyard animals when they were in preschool, to Henry Huggins, Harry Potter, and […]

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