Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

You Don’t Have to Be Literal-Minded to Be Funny!

Posted by Neal on March 18, 2007

And yes, I know: Just because you’re literal-minded doesn’t mean you’re funny. Now that that’s out of the way…

When I was a kid, there were one or two occasions when a school librarian or a teacher or someone read the class a book about Amelia Bedelia. I thought they were OK, but not interesting enough for me to seek out any others to read. However, I read several more of them a few years ago, not just because I now have kids to read them to, but because these books are often specifically recommended as a good way for parents to teach kids about autism. The reason is that most of the humor in the books comes from Amelia Bedelia taking things literally. In almost every description or review of these books, this trait of Amelia Bedelia’s is brought up, and very often it’s true. I’m surprised I never noticed it in the one or two A.B. books that were read to me as a kid. All I remember thinking is, “Ha, ha, Amelia Bedelia sure is dumb!”

But one thing nags at me a little bit when I read these reviews or recommendations that talk about how literal-minded Amelia Bedelia is. Now that I have read some more of these books, I see that it’s not that Amelia Bedelia takes things too literally; it’s that when there is an ambiguity, she will always choose the funnier interpretation. Sometimes the ambiguity really will be between a literal and a figurative or at least jargon-specific meaning. In one book, she plays ball with some kids, and in the literal rather than baseball-jargon senses, steals a base and runs home. The ambiguity doesn’t always depend on a literal and a nonliteral meaning, though.

One example I particularly remember involves an ambiguity between a more common meaning and a less common one. In the book I’m thinking about, there is a Christmas tree which Amelia Bedeliais told to trim. Silly Amelia Bedelia, she actually takes hedge-clippers to the tree! But did she really take her instructions literally? I’ll grant that “cut” is a literal meaning of trim, but isn’t the “decorate” meaning literal, too? It looks like both meanings came from the same verb with a general meaning of “prepare” (according to the online dictionaries I’ve quickly consulted).

Of course, as they say, “etymology is not destiny,” so let’s say that the “cut” meaning is now perceived as the literal one, and the “decorate” meaning is perceived as idiomatic or figurative. Having done that, let’s move on to another A.B. book, possibly the first one. In this one she is told to trim a piece of meat for to be cooked for supper. Does she cut off the fat? No, she decorates it with bows and ribbons! So whichever meaning of trim is taken as the literal one, Amelia Bedelia’s problem is not simply that she takes things too literally. Like Roger Rabbit choosing whether or not to pull his paw out of the handcuff, Amelia Bedelia must follow the path of maximum funniness. But none of the reviews puts it this way. It’s always about Amelia Bedelia being literal-minded.

What reminded me of all this? This post by Russell at Noncompositional, talking about a funny commercial, in which the funny meaning is implied to be the literal one, when in fact, both are definitely, no room for question, literal. Both meanings involve precisely the same word meanings, and the only difference is in the syntactic structure imposed on them. So where did this idea come from that taking things literally means taking them in a funny way? I’d guess it’s because assigning a literal meaning to an utterance means disregarding social/pragmatic clues that might (though not necessarily) point to a different meaning, and meanings arrived at in this way are often the funny ones. If some misinterpretation or joke is based on a meaning that is both funny and literal, and is labeled as such, then there’s a chance that some hearers will take the “funny” part as more important than the “based on a strictly compositional, nonfigurative meaning” part, or maybe not even pick up on the latter at all. From there, literal, literal-minded, and related words can start to take on just the meaning of “funny”, in much the same way as flamboyant is sometimes taken to mean “homosexual”, or decadent seems to have come to mean nothing more than “really good-tasting”, or misnomer is used by some people to describe any misconception, not just one involving a poorly chosen name.

4 Responses to “You Don’t Have to Be Literal-Minded to Be Funny!”

  1. Terri said

    Aha, good catch! At first I was thinking that nobody I know uses ‘trim’ for ‘decorate’. However, if she is familar with the term ‘trim’ in relation to garnishing food, why isn’t she familiar with the usage when it comes to decorating the tree? I don’t suppose she learned the alternate meaning of the word ‘trim’ during the tree cutting incident? Great blog. Sorry if I made any mistakes; I’m terrified!

  2. dgm said

    i don’t care whether amelia bedelia is literal or not. she taught me to separate my eggs when they misbehave, and that happens to be every time i make meringue.

  3. […] – people saying that Amelia Bedelia always takes things literally! Didn’t we cover this already? Given an utterance with more than one meaning, Amelia Bedelia always chooses the interpretation of […]

  4. […] I wrote in 2007 about Amelia Bedelia, it’s not about going for the unintended literal meaning of something; it’s about […]

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