Putting the X in AXB

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Josh Fruhlinger was morpho-syntactically unhappy about Shoe for 9/21/2011 ("Josh puts the 'long' in 'long-winded'", The Comics Curmudgeon 9/21/2011):


He explained:

Here’s the thing about jokes of the form “you put the X in Y,” where X represents one or more syllables in Y: the humor only works if the X makes up a part of Y even though the two words are not related semantically. For instance, if your significant other had travelled into orbit as part of the U.S. space program, it would be funny if, after admiring their attractive backside, you said, “Baby, you put the ‘ass’ in ‘astronaut.’” However, if you were dating an Olympic champion, you shouldn’t say, “Baby, you put the ‘win’ in ‘winner,’” as that would sound very, very stupid. “Crank,” in the sense of an eccentric, obsessive person, is actually derived from “cranky,” so the level of wordplay here is pretty disappointing to say the least.

Josh's analysis rings true, although he confesses that

OK, I admit that I launched into that etymological and linguistic lecture entirely because I’m particularly proud of the “you put the ‘ass’ in ‘astronaut’” joke I thought up.

But there's at least one famous source of "put the X in Y" examples, where X and Y are not only "related semantically" but in fact are semantically identical (at least in the sense that both are semantically null) — the 1961 doo-wop song "Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp":

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Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp?
Who put the ram in the ram a lam a ding dong?
Who put the bop in the bop shoo bop shoo bop?
Who put the dip in the dip da dip da dip?

Of course, there will be some objections to the idea that these phrases have no meaning, starting with this passage from the song itself:

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When my baby heard
"bomp bah bah bomp bah bomp bah bomp bah"
every word went right into her heart

The argument is even more strongly supported by the song's ending, which directly challenges the widespread view that music is non-referential:

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These examples from the current Google News archive can't compare in eloquence and wit, although they conform to Josh's rule:

Caps still need to put the 'pow' in power play
Put the 'O' in October.
Females Put the “Cheat” in Cheetahs

And as a Simpsons' fan, I'm a bit disappointed in the title of this musical coming soon to New York City, although it again obeys Josh's dictum:

3 Nerds and a Girl productions will present a one-night-only performance of WE PUT THE SPRING IN SPRINGFIELD: THE MUSIC OF THE SIMPSONS, a tribute to the most successful animated show of all time – on Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 7PM at the Triad Theatre, 158 West 72nd St. in New York City.



40 Comments

  1. Robert Furber said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    The title is the title of a song from the episode "Bart After Dark".

  2. Ø said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:25 am

    Earlier example (1939): "Who put the Hot in Hottentot", spoken by the Cowardly Lion in the movie Wizard of Oz.

  3. Murray Smith said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    I'd say Lisa M. Nowak put the ass in astronaut.

  4. jfruh said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 8:41 am

    Oh my gosh, I am extremely honored to be the launching point for this discussion! I should add that tracking down the etymologies here did teach me that "crank" derives from "cranky" and not (as I would have expected) the other way around, so I guess the comic wasn't totally wasted.

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    Here's "putting the fun in fundamentals" from 1912:

    The other day, down on Yale Field, Johnny Mack, the trainer, was chasing after the squad, yelling: "Fundamentals, boys, fundamentals: look out for your fundamentals," when one of the husky ones stopped running and said to Mack: "Say, John. I would give a whole lot to see the man who put the 'fun' in fundamentals." ("Football Notes," Boston Daily Globe, Nov. 7, 1912, p. 8)

    [Harvard crew coach Percy Haughton:] "Perhaps, the Yale men get too much training, and have to hunt to find who put the 'fun' in fundamentals; but don't forget two years ago, when everything pointed to a sweeping Harvard victory and Yale got a scoreless tie and a virtual victory." ("Harvard Club Celebrates Crew's Victory," Boston Daily Globe, Nov. 20, 1912, p. 8)

    [Update: See many more examples from 1912 here.]

  6. Dakota said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    "What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the "ape" in apricot?" (Wizard of Oz, 1939) works exactly because apricots do NOT have apes in them.

  7. Skullturf said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    An early Simpsons tag-line said that they put the "fun" in "dysfunctional".

    [(myl) MUCH better than "spring in Springfield", IMHO. Among linguists, "fun" is typically put in "phonetics" or "phonology" or both. (And there are t-shirts and coffee mugs boasting that certain departments "put the sin in syntax" and the "antics in semantics". Or at least there ought to be...)

    Some other possibilities remain latent. If anyone has ever taken advantage of the opportunity to "put the Gee! in etymology", for example, Google is unaware of it.]

  8. Bob LeDrew said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    Favorite X in the Y joke of all time? Also from the Simpsons. While Bart and Lisa are at Duff Gardens, Homer and Marge are watching such lusty fare as "The Erotic Adventures of Hercules" and … "Yentl?!" at which point Homer says: "Mmmmm, Barbra Streisand… puts the she in yeshiva."

    Kills me. Every time I hear it.

  9. Kylopod said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    I think part of the confusion lies in whether a joke is even intended. Or, at least, it depends on the source of the humor. I always found the "Who put the bomp" song to be one of the most annoying songs of its era. I think it was intended as tongue-in-cheek, a kind of sendup of doo-wop songs that paired inanely nonsensical lyrics with sentimental love themes. But it was a case of the parody being as bad as the thing itself.

    The source of the humor wasn't any incongruity between the part and the whole (as in "who put the 'ape' in 'apricot') but the non sequitur implication that someone unidentified actually "put" something in a word. This seems to follow when it's phrased in the form of a question ("Who put the X in Y") as opposed to a statement ("You put the X in Y"). It seems to conjure up an image either of someone creating a language from scratch, or God Himself being credited with the language's construction.

    I remember a version of this trope in a comedy routine I used to hear on Baltimore's 98 Rock eons ago. I did a little searching and dug up a version of this routine on Youtube.

    I wouldn't be surprised if this all has vaudevillian roots.

  10. J Lee said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    i move for a new post dedicated to simpsons/azaria-shearer wordplay

    apu: 'i fear i will lose my sweet Manjula…'
    homer: [drool] 'sweet mint julep..'

  11. efahl said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    At the risk of insulting many of the faithful, who put the faux in phonetics?

    [(myl) No one, because there isn't any! In phonetique, on the other hand...]

  12. Janice Byer said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 11:51 am

    I can't say I'm scenario-logistically unhappy the illustrator(s) put what appears to be the interior of a diner under a canopy of trees. After all, the service is for the birds.

  13. Robert Coren said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    @Dakota: works exactly because apricots do NOT have apes in them.

    Especially in my idiolect, where apricots are more likely to contain apps than apes.

    I'll confess, by the way, that until reading this post I was unaware that Shoe was still being written/published.

  14. D.O. said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    But does SPRING IN SPRINGFIELD really satisfy Josh's Rule?

  15. Brian said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    Janice Byer: Would you feel any better to know that the diner is (like every place in Shoe) actually up within a tree, fort-like?

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    There's a different wordplay pattern where a rhyme will suffice, as witness the classic song title (from the 1940's if not earlier) "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?" Whether e.g. "put the fun in fundamental" is an extension of that, or they have separate histories, I couldn't say.

    [(myl) That one seems to be based on "Who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder?", a late-19th-century humorous ballad.]

    "We Put the Spring In Springfield" was, in its Simpsons episode-of-origin, an actual song title rather than merely a passing bit of wordplay. Wikipedia reports that the song won an Emmy. So perhaps a not inapt title for a revue of songs from Simpsons episodes?

    [(myl) Good song, weak "Who put the X in Y" wordplay, IMO.]

  17. Dakota said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    @Robert Coren,

    I knew there was something about those lyrics that bothered me. Fortunately, in my idiolect we only have peaches, being too far north, so we only have to read "apricot", not pronounce it.

    It partially makes up for growing up right on the "aunt" border and having to remember which side of the family has ants and which has awnts.

  18. Jon said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    Subverting Josh's rule, from BBC radio4's I'm sorry I haven't a clue.
    (Referring to the programme's pianist):
    "Colin Sell, the man who put the 'C' into rap music."

  19. iching said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    Unfortunately, as an Australian, jfruh's awesome-for-Americans joke does not work for me. I either have to picture an astronaut as a donkey-like creature or pronounce the word as "ahstronaut". The synonym for posterior I would transcribe as "arse" (enunciated non-rhotically of course). And "aunt" is neither "ant" nor "awnt", but "ahnt", naturally. Is there anywhere at all in the USA or Canada where "aunt" is pronounced "ahnt"?

  20. John Walden said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

    Not much laughter in a slaughterhouse (I know it doesn't really work).

  21. I.D. Mercer said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    iching — Many North Americans have both the cot-caught merger and the father-bother merger. People with those mergers would probably say that "ahnt" and "awnt" are the same.

    However, I say "aunt" the same as "ant". For those North Americans who pronounce "aunt" differently from "ant", I am not sure which of the above-mentioned mergers they would tend to have.

  22. Michael Ellis said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:07 pm

    I see that General Electric have decided to challenge Siemens on their home turf and are using a slogan that only works in writing
    "Wir sind das GE in GErmany"
    with a whole series of adverts for different products with similar slogans:
    "Wir sind das GE in GEmeinde"
    "Wir sind das GE in GEwissen"
    "Wir sind das GE in GEburt"

  23. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    The most frequent "put X in AXB" meme that I encounter (every December) is "putting Christ back in Christmas." This is different in having not a phonetic but an orthographic/etymological basis, but I think it belongs to the same category.

  24. Jason Eisner said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    And there are t-shirts and coffee mugs boasting that certain departments "put the sin in syntax" and the "antics in semantics". Or at least there ought to be…

    Well, at the First Workshop on Unnatural Language Processing, one of our government panelists proposed "A Sin Tax for Some Antics."

  25. AntC said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:01 am

    Who put the scatology in eschatology? So obvious, even Wikipedia looks down its nose.

  26. quim said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:38 am

    "ass in astronaut" gets 1k googlehits, this post being the 8th.

  27. Bob Lieblich said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 7:17 am

    Let's not forget "How can there be any sin in sincere?" from "The Music Man." It includes the musical queston "Where is the good in goodbye?" in which, as anyone familiar with the etymology (probably everyone reading this blog) knows, the "good" in "goodbye" isn't really "good" at all.

  28. Dakota said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    iching,

    There are some interesting dialect maps here:
    http://www4.uwm.edu/FLL/linguistics/dialect/maps.html

  29. Rodger C said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 8:41 am

    @iching: Your specific question is answered here:

    http://www4.uwm.edu/FLL/linguistics/dialect/staticmaps/q_1.html

  30. Bob said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    How about: "Who put the 'meow' in 'homeowner'" or "Who put the 'trophy' in 'astrophysics?'"

  31. Walter Burleigh said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    And a two-carom shot:

    "Focus on the Family–putting the fundament in fundamenalism since 1977"

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/OneFish/creationists-define-the-purpose-of-higher-education_b_982623_110732147.html

  32. Joe said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    We put the fun in funeral.

  33. Joe said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    … or the Laughter in Manslaughter.

  34. Ken Brown said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 6:12 pm

    Scunthorpe.

    Sorry.

    More on-topic, I think "who put the bomp" is a good example of the form. The nonsense singing is just wibble that scans. But "bomp", "bop", and "ram" are desirable qualities in certain kinds of fantasy social encounters. Perhaps it counts as deconstruction.

  35. Not My Leg said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 8:02 pm

    On we put the GE in GErman. Does that work for Germans, or is it odd to use the English word for Germany as opposed to Deutschland in a German add campaign? I mean, I suppose it isn't as incomprehensible to Germans as if a German company came to the US and said "We put the VE in VEreinigte Staaten" but it still seems odd.

    On a related note, I strongly encourage a Russian company to purchase the CW Network and change its slogan to "We put the CW in CWA."

  36. Michael Ellis said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    It's probably just odd enough to be noticed (which, I suppose, is the intention) but not terribly strange. After all, Germans are quite familiar with "Made in Germany" as a sign of quality.

    German advertisers also seem to compete to see who can get the most English in their slogans, which is much bemoaned by people who don't like it.
    One chain recently had the slogan "Come in and find out", but it was reported that many people misunderstood it (e.g. as "Come in and find your way out again").

  37. JH said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    If I remember correctly, "We Put the Spring in Springfield" was sung by the madam of a burlesque house, emphasizing the, ahem, stimulus her establishment provided the local community. That meaning of "spring" is certainly not semantically related to "Springfield," so it seems like it follows Josh's rule perfectly.

  38. Arnold Zwicky said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    From back in 2004, Geoff Pullum on "put the X in Y", here.

  39. Soniabegonia said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    I have often said that I put the usage in sausage. Is there a more concise term for this part of language? You "put the X in Y" isn't the easiest thing to work into a sentence.

  40. Vadim D. said,

    December 4, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    I couldn't resist mentioning, in the spirit of true linguistic science, that the all-knowing creators of The Simpsons have already alluded most humorously to this very distinction. The episode name escapes me (actually, I'm not one of those dudes that knows the names of the episodes), but when Ned Flanders becomes the annoyingly popular principal of Springfield Elementary, he makes the following cheery remarks:

    NED: Well, tippety-top of the A.M. to every-good-body here. As chairman of the PTA, I am de-diddley-lighted to take over here and I think I can put the "pal" back in "principal".

    [everyone laughs]

    CHALMERS: Heh heh, yeah. And I'll put the "super" back in "superintendent".

    [one person coughs]

    Superintendent Chalmers proceeds to express his consternation at the divergent reactions to what would seem to be the same joke. Leo, his assistant, is unfortunately not as linguistically capable as Josh, and blames it on his baldness. One could quibble that "super" in common use as a word and "super" as the Latin prefix are perhaps no longer semantically related, but I think that would be putting the "loser" back in "pedant" (the "s" is silent).

    (Okay, now that I've looked up the exact quote on SNNP, the name of the episode is "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song")

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