Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Keepin’ It Literal

Posted by Neal on February 23, 2005

Geoff Pullum writes about someone else’s literal-minded sense of humor:

I was giving directions to my house this morning…. “At the end of the cul de sac,” I told him, “you’ll see a driveway with a pile of mulch under a blue tarp; that’s us.” And I heard him giggle. I saw why. We are not a pile of mulch under a blue tarp, Barbara and me; rather, we live in the house behind it.

I’d’ve laughed, too. It reminded me of what my wife told the babysitter as we were leaving for the parent-teacher conferences last week:

And my cellphone is on the refrigerator if you need to call us.

I said a better plan would probably be to take her cellphone with us, and just leave her cellphone number on the fridge.*

We’ve been together long enough that she often knows when my literalness is about to surface. A day or two later, she talked with the director of Doug’s old preschool, who also happened to have been Doug’s teacher when he was in the class for three-year-olds. At supper, she told Doug about the meeting, and asked him:

Can you believe I talked to your three-year-old teacher today?

Heh, heh, I was thinking, that’s fu–

“Don’t say it!” she told me.

*Or frig, as I’ve seen it spelled here. It makes me think of a prude cussing about someone stealing his lunch at work: “It was right here in the friggin’ frig, and now it’s gone!”

6 Responses to “Keepin’ It Literal”

  1. Anonymous said

    whenever i’m in a retail establishment and the friendly salesgirl says, “if you need any assistance my name is [fill in blank],” i say, “what is your name if i don’t?” only about 1/2 of them get it.

  2. Neal said

    Yeah, the same thought occurs to me when that happens. You’re probably (like me) a fan of the song in “Lady in the Tramp” that goes, “We are Siamese if you please. We are Siamese if you *don’t* please.”

  3. Anonymous said

    oh, great, now you’ve given me that audio tattoo (i’m very susceptible).

    actually, doesn’t it come from “the aristocats”?

    unrelatedly, isn’t it funny how people use the term “literally” when they really mean “figuratively”? i heard a guy on the radio announcing an annual contest and he said, “last year when we did this,the phones literally exploded!” and i thought that if they really did, i can’t imagine why they would hold the contest again.

    [condescending head nod.]


  4. My favorite literal-minded interpretation, from some movie or TV show I can’t quite recall:

    WAITRESS: What would you like, sir?
    NEW CUSTOMER (nodding at the next customer’s plate): I’ll have what he’s having.
    WAITRESS: Okay. (Takes the next customer’s plate and moves it in front of the new customer.)

    DGM — nope, I’m pretty sure it was “Lady and the Tramp.” And I, too, am irked by the use of “literally” to mean “figuratively.” That particular usage really yanks my inner linguistic prescriptivist’s chain. If “literally” comes to be synonymous with “figuratively,” then how will we indicate when something literally happened? Grr.

  5. Anonymous said

    d’oh! i stand corrected (not literally).


  6. blahedo said

    In the same vein, the old PBS classic “This Old House” used to always end with a quick sneak peak of what would happen next week, and then finally conclude with:

    “Until then, I’m Bob Vila.”

    After then, of course, was anyone’s guess.

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