Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Make Me One with Everything

Posted by Neal on August 7, 2011

Glen drew my attention to a Language Log post a couple of months ago, which commented on the cultural knowledge you needed in order to get the joke

The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza joint and says, “Make me one with everything.”

Actually, the way I heard this joke years ago was, “What did the Zen master say to the hot dog vendor?”, but no matter. Glen wrote:

But oddly, given the source, the post doesn’t mention the linguistic knowledge (perhaps implicit) that you must also have. It seems like the joke requires understanding how direct and indirect objects can occupy the same spot in a sentence.

Indeed it does, and more specifically, it requires knowledge of two different syntactic frames that make can fit into. To the right is a diagram of make me one with everything with its meaning of “make for me a pizza that has every topping on it”. The first branch is the verb make; the second branch is the NP consisting of the pronoun me. The third branch is the NP one with everything, which itself consists of the NP one, modified by the PP with everything.

Now let’s take a look at the diagram for the other meaning. Which one, though? There is the Zen punch line reading: “Unify my essence with that of the universe.” But there’s also another reading where one with everything still refers to a pizza with all the toppings: “Turn me into a pizza that has every topping on it.” That’s the reading Glen and I would play with when our baby sister Ellen (she’s a second-year medical resident now, by the way) would ask us, “Will you make me a peanut butter sandwich?” We’d say, “Sure! Abracadabra — you’re a peanut butter sandwich!” Then she’d say, “No! A real peanut butter sandwich!” And we’d say, “Oh, well why didn’t you say so! You’re a real peanut butter sandwich!”

The “turn me into a pizza with everything” reading would correspond to … well, actually, that would correspond to the same structure I had in that last diagram. In fact, so would the nirvana reading. Some ambiguities just don’t correspond to different syntactic structures. To distinguish the structures associated with these different meanings, we need to label the branches with not only their syntactic categories, but also the grammatical functions that the phrases they’re labeling play. The diagram on the left below belongs to the no-funny-business meaning, with me as indirect object, and one with everything as direct object. The one on the right belongs to the funny “you’re a pizza” reading, with me as direct object, and one with everything as a predicate complement. And … it also belongs to the funny Zen reading. The two funny readings still are identical structurally. Unless…

It seems to me that the special meaning of one to mean “integrated with, coextensive with” is more of an adjectival meaning. But it’s hard to find a reason to justify that claim. You can’t have comparative or superlative forms of this adjective: *oner, *onest. It can’t be used attributively: *a one-with-everything Zen master. Of course, there are other adjectives that aren’t gradable, such as binary and nonexistent, and other adjectives that can’t be attributive, such as asleep, ajar, afraid, etc. But having one of those properties would make for a more decisive labeling. There is one fact, though, that may be what is tilting me toward an adjective diagnosis: You can only use one with X as a predicative when it has this meaning. You can’t use it as a subject, direct or indirect object, or object of a preposition: [*]One with everything just walked through the door, [*]I saw one with everything. (The asterisks mean that the sentence is grammatical, but not with the meaning you’re looking for.) So with that in mind, we could diagram the Zen meaning of make me one with everything like this:

10 Responses to “Make Me One with Everything”

  1. Ben Zimmer said

    I always thought the “hot dog vendor” version was the canonical one — here it is in 1991, about when I first heard it. (I mentioned this to Geoff P. after his LL post, and he observed that the Dalai Lama would hardly be interested in a hot dog, but he might at least have had a vegetarian pizza now and then. I suggested he might enjoy a not dog.)

  2. Stan said

    When I first heard the joke, I thought of the Zen one with everything as an abridged at one with everything, maybe because I was more familiar with the latter idiom at the time. I expect one with X came before at one with X, but their similarity might help show the adjectival sense of this one: an at-one-with-everything Zen master.

  3. Ran said

    It’s true that “one with […]” doesn’t form a synthetic comparative with “-er”, but it does form an analytic comparative with “more”; at least, the uses at sound just fine to me. So I’m definitely on board with calling it an adjective.

    Also, it doesn’t seem unusual to me that it can’t be used attributively: I don’t think ?”[adj.] [compl. of adj.] [noun]” is ever normal usage. (It does occur, but I think it’s stretching English syntax a bit — and anyway, if we accept such uses, then “one with nature” is attested in attributive position.) Often we can say “[adj.] [noun] [compl. of adj.]”, as in “a {younger} {baby} {than this one}” or “a {tough} {act} {to follow}”, but often we can’t, as in *”a {worth} {book} {twenty dollars}” or *”an {eager} {child} {to please}”. (Do you know what the rule for this is? I don’t.)

    • Neal said

      Nice evidence you’ve found. Your point about multi-word (prenominal) attributives is true. It’s the defense I would raise if someone were to point out that you couldn’t use at one with X prenominally, so it can’t be an adjective. I’m not sure of what rule governs whether an attributive AdjP goes before, after, or wrapped around what it modifies.

  4. EP said

    Excellent! That reminds me of an old Frank Zappa record I used to listen to. Somebody replies to a question with “I want nothing,” or something along those lines and Zappa says “A true Zen saying, nothing is all I want.”

  5. Cobuilder rides again said

    Reminds me of the old joke: “My mother made me a homosexual” – “Ooh, would she make me one too if I gave her the wool?”

    You’re right that two different meanings can have the same syntactic representation, especially with a simple surface structure grammar as in your first diagram. (Nothing wrong with that in its place!)

    I missed out on your competition a few weeks ago, but how about a blog about the opposite, less documented phenomenon, whereby the same meaning can have different and mutually exclusive representations? To wit…

    – the “right to work” campaign (“work” – noun or verb?)
    – I’m going to sleep now (“sleep” – noun or verb?)
    – Cadbury’s Flake tastes like chocolate never tasted before (“tasted” – past participle or intransitive preterite?)

    Some may object that the syntactic ambiguities correspond to slight semantic differences, but that may be a post hoc reaction after the ambiguity has been pointed out. There would be little chance of misunderstanding in context.

  6. the ridger said

    The problem is as much, if not more, with the lexical meanings of “make”. If you don’t use “one with everything” I think the distinction is clearer, though I think they diagram the same anyway. Consider Frank’s song in Rocky Horror:” can make you man”. In one case it’s “make you INTO a man” and in the other “make a man FOR you”.

  7. […] linguistic humor from her brothers as a girl, who graduated from UTexas, earned her MD, and is now doing her residency?) One thing I’ve admired about Ellen since she started dating is that she doesn’t […]

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