Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

One Bright Day in the Middle of the Night

Posted by Neal on August 18, 2011

One of the poems Dad taught me when I was a kid went like this:

One bright day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys began to fight.
Back to back they faced each other;
Drew their knives and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came and killed the two dead boys.
If you don’t believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

I, of course, have taught it to Doug and Adam, along with other poems I learned from Dad, including “Don’t you laugh when the hearse goes by” and “Roses are red, violets are blue; I can ride a bicycle, can you swim?” The last time I recited it, I added, “Of course, this must have taken place in a polar region during the summer.”

Thinking more, I said, “And clearly it happened before the boys were dead. Kind of like saying, ‘The late so-and-so once said…’ and it’s understood that he said it when he was still alive.”

Doug and Adam started to get into it, too. You can face each other while you’re back to back if you each have a mirror you’re holding up. “And they must have had ballistic knives!” added Doug, who has learned about such things from playing Call of Duty. (This wouldn’t work so well in versions of the poem that have “Drew their guns and stabbed each other.”)

Hey, that was good. With ballistic knives in the picture, we were now on the home stretch. “‘A deaf policeman heard the noise’ — oh, that’s easy. Just like the boys weren’t dead at the time, this policeman wasn’t deaf yet, although he’s deaf now. And he killed the two dead boys? Well, clearly, that’s how they came to be dead.” The same reasoning also cleared the part about the blind man “who saw it, too.”

That just left the part about true lies. But then all of a sudden I realized: It didn’t matter! The clause about true lies was the complement of an opacity-inducing verb! “Hey, we don’t have to explain anything about true lies!” I told Doug and Adam. “You can believe that two plus two equals five, and there’s no contradiction. You can believe that a purple dinosaur lives under your bed, and the sentence is still true, even though you’re wrong.” Believe, unlike know, doesn’t presuppose that what follows is true.

I’m glad I was able to enrich this poem for Doug and Adam, and make it so much more fun and meaningful.

5 Responses to “One Bright Day in the Middle of the Night”

  1. Ben Zimmer said

    Training a new generation in literal-mindedness, I see. My son Blake (now 5) loves counterfactual/paradoxical light verse, like the “Lullaby” (by Lenny Hart) in My First Oxford Book of Nonsense Poems that starts off, “Open your eyes and go to sleep. / The ocean’s high. The mountain’s deep.”

  2. Blar said

    (This wouldn’t work so well in versions of the poem that have “Drew their guns and stabbed each other.”)

    Bayonets.

  3. Uly said

    There’s lots of different versions of that one, actually.

    http://www.folklore.bc.ca/Onefineday.htm#Onefine

  4. EP said

    Ballistic knives? Not bad. I’m still working on the first line, though.

  5. Peter Broadey said

    I was told a slightly different poem when I was at school.
    One fine day in the middle of the night, the Atlantic Ocean caught alight
    The blind man saw it deaf man heard it and the man with no legs ran to call the fire brigade. The tender was pulled by six white horses each was drowned and scorched to death
    This story was told by four old gentlemen sitting at the corners of a round table eating currents from a plain cake

    Wonder where this one came from?

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