Supercollider? I hardly know her.

« previous post | next post »

The title attribute for the most recent xkcd strip has the value "Supercollider? I 'ardly know 'er", with apostrophes in place of the two initial h letters. This is a cultural mistake, a rare thing from Randall Monroe, who is usually pitch perfect.

Randall's use of apostrophes suggests that instances of this old joke must belong to one of the English varieties that "drops aitches". But in fact, many (most?) speakers who generally preserve [h] generally don't have an [h] in unstressed versions of the pronouns he, his, him, her. For me, and I think for most Americans, an initial [h] in the object pronoun of "I hardly know her" (or "I hardly know him") would sound rather fussy and over-articulated. So the joke doesn't have to be delivered in a Cockney accent!

I'll leave it to the commenters to try to determine who invented this joke, or at least when it came into common use. A quick internet search turns up dozens of variants of the first clause, including the topical "Spitzer". It's easy to create new ones, since -er is such a common ending in English (and -or etc. will work as well).

And if you pick a random er-final word, there's a depressingly high chance of finding it involved in an instance of this joke on the web — Randall is not the first (or even the 30th) to apply the pattern to supercollider.

There are fewer examples with him, no doubt partly because words ending in -im or -um etc. are rarer, and partly because people are less likely to make such jokes about men. Some obvious opportunities (like bunkum) haven't yet appeared on the web (compare bunker).

For more on the cultural history of English [h] in general, and [h] in unstressed syllables in particular, see "An hero at the NYT", 2/16/2004; "An hero ain't nothing but a hypercorrection", 2/6/2004; "Hung like a hero", 2/16/2004; "A shibboleth of gentility: [h] from William Shakespeare to Henry Higgins", 3/1/2004.

Share:



48 Comments »

  1. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

    One example with /-əm/ is the punchline-without-a-joke that appears in the 1996 movie Black Sheep: "Rectum? Damn near killed 'em!"

    The title of the Led Zeppelin song "D'yer Mak'er" hinges on a somewhat similar joke that only works for non-rhotic speakers, as explained in my post, "Pinker's almer mater." [Update, 9/14: And discussed further here.]

  2. James Russell said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    That's the second -er joke that I've seen on a blog today.

    Over at the fake Sarah Palin blog (Welcome to the PalinDrome), it was

    "Interior? I DO even know her!"

    http://sarahpalin.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/09/interior-i-do-e.html

  3. Nick Lamb said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

    I'd have sworn (but have no proof) that the apostrophes are a convention of this joke. That is, if I were reading a variation of this joke I would expect it to have apostrophes, and if I were writing it, I'd do the same.

    I notice that there are apostrophes in Ben Zimmer's examples too.

    Still, Google doesn't seem to agree with me, and what do I know anyway?

  4. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

    I like the following surreal versions, which aren't even puns:

    "Scrotum? Damn near killed 'im!"

    "Liquor in the front; euchre in the rear."

    Since there are no words "scrow" or "yook" in common everyday English, the fact that you have to use your imagination almost makes it dirtier.

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

    In Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace (1996), Lori Kendall contributes the article "MUDder? I Hardly Know 'Er! Adventures of a Feminist MUDder." (A MUDder is/was an enthusiast for the multi-player computer games known as MUDs.) In the article she describes "objokes" (obligatory jokes) in MUDs, for words ending in "-er" and less frequently "-us" ("rumpus? it nearly killed us!"). She writes that the "I hardly know 'er" response was "so common that most participants do not complete it, leaving the remainder of the joke to be called up in the minds of the others." She gives an example where "two participants race to be the first objoke respondent":

    Parker says "it's all the Badger's fault"
    elflock says "Badger, i hardly"
    henri says "badger why I hardly"
    elflock winz
    henri loses

  6. Nick Lamb said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

    I suspect Randall spent most time concocting the dialogue for the final frame, in which each of the two characters casually mentions three of the six flavours of quark. The LHC collides protons, which are of course made out of quarks.

  7. battlekow said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

    Is the last panel some sort of quark joke? How come the guy didn't say "You're strange"?

  8. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

    The same phrase appears in an earlier xkcd.

    And the last frame has all six flavors.

  9. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

    To a Brit (well, me, anyway) this joke template immediately suggests our great cultural treasure, the Carry On film series; it would invariably be delivered (by Sid James or Bernard Bresslaw) in Londonese, if not outright Cockney, and accordingly be spelt in eye-dialect with the apostrophes.

    I wouldn't be surprised if it goes back to Max Miller himself.

  10. Jakel said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

    @ Nick Lamb: actually I counted references to all six flavours…

    "So you're up for a night with a charming stranger?"

    "Depends, top or bottom?"

    "Barkeep, two whiskey sours, straight down."

  11. Ian Tindale said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

    This is pretty much exactly how I normally sound when I speak. On reflection, it's perhaps a bit sloppier and rougher, maybe, but after a few beers, this is pretty much exactly how I normally sound when I speak.

  12. mgh said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

    And if you pick a random er-final word, there's a depressingly high chance of finding it involved in an instance of this joke on the web

    Small point, but the joke is limited to [verb]+[er] words. Many (most?) er-final words (bigger, smaller, smarter, dumber) don't work with this joke and I don't find instances of them in google.

  13. MB said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the elaboration of the agent suffix into object pronoun in the lyrics of Kris Kristofferson's "The Taker, " on _The Silvertongued Devil and I_ (1970).

  14. MB said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

    Shel Silverstein gets the credit for the lyrics to KK's song.

  15. GAC said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

    I feel like a sad, sad man. I didn't get the mouseover joke OR the quark names before I saw them mentioned here.

  16. Rubrick said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

    The best "him" or "his" variant I've found is "lapis lazuli".

    As for the title text, my feeling is that the apostrophe in "'er" is reasonable, as these are universally known among aficionados as "er jokes". I agree that dropping the 'h' in "hardly" is unnecessary. Among us especially hip dweebs the issue doesn't generally arise, since only the most behind-the-curve people bother to speak the punchline any more; it's implied by the intonation on the -er phrase.

    In closing, I'd just like to mention that Cooper Tire & Rubber is almost too good to be true.

  17. Brett said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

    I missed the references to up and strange the first time I read the last panel. I suppose I missed the former because it was at the very beginning, and I wasn't at all on the lookout for quark names. The reference to charm jumped out at me, but the reference to strange did not. Physicists–obviously particle physicists especially–frequently make jokes about charm; I heard one from a colleague just today. We do not make jokes about strange very often. There are a couple of reasons for this, I suppose. Of the names of the elementary particles, charm is unique in that it has a non-jargon meaning, yet one which would be very unlikely to come up in a physics-related conversation (whereas we talk about "strange" stuff all the time). The name of the fourth quark, unlike up, down, and strange, is also a noun, and that makes it easier to construct jokes with it. You can say that either a person or a hadron "has charm," which is the usual way the humor is introduced. You can't do the same thing with the strange quark; while something in the everyday world "is stange," we would say a kaon "has strangeness." So my mind is primed to see charm jokes in a way it's not primed to see strange jokes.

    Obviously, it's hard to miss top and bottom when they're paired together, especially after a reference to charm. However, I was disappointed that he didn't use truth and beauty instead.

  18. DonBoy said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

    In my head, the archetype of this is "Bangor? I hardly" etc. This places it in the proud tradition of place-name puns, alongside "In Alabama, the Tuskaloosa" and "Nome in Alaska? I'd know 'im anywhere!"

  19. csawyer said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

    I feel like the " 'ardly" isn't an imitation of a Cockney accent; it's a bit of more-or-less standard metahumor. In person, one would exaggerate the voice inflection on the phrase to communicate that a) he isn't stupid enough to actually think that's what you said, and b) he's making fun of the joke rather than naively telling it like a noob. Unnecessary or inaccurate eye-dialect serves as the same sort of tag.

  20. neminem said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

    I recently finished spending 4 years of my life in the geekiest dorm of one of the geekiest schools on the planet, a place where linguistic humor of this sort is quite common. In fact, we have a private, dorm-wide wiki in which many lists are maintained, including an I Hardly Know'er list that's been there since long before I was at the school (I want to say it's about 10 years old or so). It starts off with things that are actually good examples of the joke ("Mountain Liquor", "Sucker for punishment", "Inspector Gadget" and "Rubber Inner Tube" being among my favorites), and then gets increasingly meta over time, to the point of nonsense (which can be amusing too – "resurrection", for instance, or "exception handler"). We even have both a speaking shorthand ("ding"), and a written shorthand ("?!"), for the rather lengthy phrase "I hardly know'er". Supercollider has been on this list for at least a year.

    What makes this *interesting* is your mention of the male version, which we only started keeping a secondary list of about 2-3 years ago, and gave the shorthand "dong" to ("Ashkenazim", "Algorithm", "Freedom", etc.). One thing led to another, and now we've got a page devoted to phrases containing both ("Angular momentum", "Inner Sanctum", "Fire Emblem"), which we of course called "The witch is dead" – as in, "ding dong, the witch is dead".

    *I* found it amusing, anyway.

  21. S Onosson said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

    I disagree with your assessment of the accent.

    I'm from western Canada, and in casual speech I would probably drop the offglide in the pronoun "I", drop the /h/ in "hardly", and run the two low vowels together as a long vowel, as well as dropping the /h/ in the final "her". So "I hardly" becomes something like /aardli/.

    I don't think this pronunciation is unusual for my region, and it or something similar likely occurs in parts of the U.S. as well.

  22. john riemann soong said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 10:45 pm

    The thing is, it seems that assimilation works when you are actually articulating the sentence, not reading it off a web comic. So the presence of a visual [h] could be distracting, I think in part because I suspect writing does affect the way we retrieve lexical items. I think there was "latter/ladder" joke that was used by a comic (subsequently cited by Wikipedia I think on the page 'allophone' or 'alveolar flap' or some historical pronunciation article, but probably removed because it didn't satisfy fair use), but while it made sense to me after I realised I had to read the thing out loud, in writing it seems that assimilation doesn't take place mentally.

  23. S Onosson said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:00 pm

    @ john riemann soong: that's interesting. I think I read aloud "in my head" quite often, and so I "got" the speech pronunciation version right away. I wonder how one would go about investigating exactly how people mentally represent the written word, and how similar or different it is from audible speech? Possibly even more interesting would be to investigate how native signers represent language mentally when reading the written form of a spoken language!

  24. Daniel Barkalow said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

    My favorite example (seen in Massachusetts by an acquaintance) is "Salem Inn and Visitor Center". (And it's currently unknown to Google.)

  25. john riemann soong said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

    S Onosson: I have often wondered where sign language would fit in a "language processing" flowchart, but my conjecture for "regular** natural language" is that while my "mental reading" is still phonetically based, it does not have *all* the features of articulation. That is, I still think of "her" as a combination of three phonemes (or two, depending on how you analyse r-coloured vowels?). It occurs to me that the stripping away of the "h" occurs near the very end of the process, when I'm just about to articulate the sentence, and the "stripping away" might not occur at all if I don't /intend/ to speak.

    Indeed, since I am reading (perceiving) and not so much producing (speaking), and since a "mental voice" would be the nearer the end product of perceiving but nearer the start of the "flowchart" for producing, it seems more complicated for me to pick up on assimilation features while reading. A good contrast (for myself, through introspection) to show this is assimilation that is being skipped, and not just the processing into "pure" phonemes, is that "write" and "right" probably do not have different acoustic representations inside my head — they match my production. Indeed, I have once written something along the lines of, "'the author rights that …'" when I was typing up a paper at 3 am and I was repeatedly falling asleep.

    But no matter how absent-minded I am, no matter how sleepy I am, no matter how drunk I am, I will probably never type something like, "Though Hamlet verbally abuses er…."

    It's not just the mere presence of the silent h, either. The key thing is I think that [h] exists in the normal lexical category but gets stripped away in liaison/assimilation. Whereas words like "honor" or "hour" probably do not store any [h] in the phonetic mental "dictionaries".

    ** I use the word "regular" in the sense that non-signed (e.g. acoustic-phonetic) language is the default route of native language acquisition, not that sign language is anyhow any less grammatical or governed by rules.

  26. john riemann soong said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:51 pm

    "My favorite example (seen in Massachusetts by an acquaintance) is "Salem Inn and Visitor Center". (And it's currently unknown to Google.)"

    That is a charming pun indeed! But the thing that does strike me is that I almost have to read it out loud "silently" (that is, initiate the mental process of making tongue movements … without making the actual tongue movements or opening your mouth), to get the joke. I would not get the joke with speedreading, I think, even though I would understand the literal noun phrase.

  27. john riemann soong said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 12:07 am

    re: to add to my post 25 (sorry for triple posting!), I have in fact caught myself almost wanting to write "on his onor" for a late night paper too. Several times. But again, I have never felt an impulse to *type* "with im" or "against er" even though I /do/ drop the [h] for those pronouns in unstressed positions. I will go so far as to conjecture that adding the [h] to "honor" when we are writing is way more artificial (in the sense of "acquired" / "inculcated" / "less automatic) then adding that same [h] to words like "him" or "her" when writing those words in unstressed positions.

    I have no idea how to test such a conjecture. It would be nice to have something approaching the remarkably elegant experiment like the Wug Test, especially with the charming simplicity in which it confirmed the idea that we had mental "lexical" dictionaries and strengthened the idea that children didn't make grammatical agreements out of pure behaviourism. (Contrast individuals who messed up their L1 acquisition because of childhood neglect, brain damage or other, and guess that a plural of "Wug" would be "Wugness" or "Wugsses" and that *does* seem closer to behaviourism — all those wrong responses emphasised the unvoiced turbulence of /s/.) These days of course, we have eyeball-tracking, PET, EEG, or 3D MRI …

  28. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 12:44 am

    A "hardly know 'er" from Yale: St. Anthony Hall has an annual black-tie dance called the Pump and Slipper.

  29. Nick Lamb said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 4:23 am

    Jakel, yes, three each = six.

  30. David Letterman said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 5:05 am

    @ neminem, What school?

  31. Paul Jakma said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 5:34 am

    Perhaps, rather than referring to any specific cockney joke, the allusion is to verbal delivery and a reference to the genre of music-hall inspired, cockney/mockney, duble-entendre comics over the ages (from Carry-On as per poster above, to modern day comics like Russell Brand).

  32. kip said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    I always thought the movie Airplane was the origin of this joke ("Striker? I hardly know her!"). I'm surprised no one has mentioned Airplane, was the joke around before that? Did Airplane just popularize it (kind of like "that's what she said" popularized the existing joke)?

  33. Sili said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 11:05 am

    Airplane? I thought the 'origin' was "poker", but I can't find an attribution (I thought Groucho, but I think he's just my dummy-source for quips like these.)

  34. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 11:47 am

    DonBoy and Sili: Bangor and poker do seem like the canonical examples to me. Hard to research this, though. The earliest example I've found so far on Usenet is from 1986: "Misdemeanor? Hell, I hardly even know her!"

    Kip: Are you sure that joke was in Airplane? I don't see it in the online script. The closest I can find is this scene from Airplane 2:

    McCROSKY
    (trying to place the name)
    Striker… Striker… Striker…

    CONTROLLER 3
    If you say so.

    He slugs the female worker next to him.

  35. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

    The following cross-talk routine is most definitely older than 1986, indeed much older than Usenet
    (it was venerable when I was in primary school):

    — I say, I say, I say!
    — What do you say?
    — My wife's gone to the West Indies!
    — Jamaica?
    — No, she went of her own accord!

    Boom, boom! Is this ancient joke unknown in the US?

  36. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

    David: As I mentioned earlier, this joke serves as the basis for the Led Zeppelin song title "D'yer Mak'er." (The song was recorded in 1972 and released in 1973.) Again, see my post, "Pinker's almer mater," on why the joke is lost on most rhotic Americans.

    It's a bit different from the "hardly know 'er" frame, but it certainly shares a family resemblance, perhaps hinting at a common origin in "Carry On"-era British humo(u)r.

  37. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

    Oops – sorry for missing that (first comment, moreover!)

    I can personally vouch for the existence of the Jamaica "joke" by the mid 1960's, and specifically in the double-act form I've cited, which might suggest an even remoter origin in music hall.

    If this particular non-rhotic example is older, I suppose this might suggest an ultimate British origin for the whole joke template too.

    In any case, it seems likely that the apostrophes are eye-dialect of some sort; it's just not clear what dialect given that the pronunciation represented is in fact (as Mark Liberman pointed out to start with) standard for all speakers.

  38. Jake said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

    I'm in Edmonton, and while the (apparently) standard form of this joke is known to me here, I'm much more accustomed to hearing it put (and to putting it) as "barely know her," rather than "hardly know her." I wonder how widespread this is (if you know what I mean).

  39. Michael W said,

    September 13, 2008 @ 12:08 am

    One might expect the 'supercollider' line to be a bit more common, as a version of it appeared on Futurama. (Then again, maybe not. That was 7 years ago, though still aired often enough on cable.)

    A robotic comedian has the line "Supercollider? I just met her!"

    Audio sample available at
    http://www.gotfuturama.com/Multimedia/EpisodeSounds/3ACV08/

  40. neminem said,

    September 13, 2008 @ 1:45 am

    @David Letterman (?): Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont.

    Incidentally, the person who added Super Collider to our list, explicitly mentioned adding it because the page "needed more Futurama reference".

  41. Kenny Easwaran said,

    September 13, 2008 @ 7:19 am

    Is "poker" the canonical example? I always thought "liquor" was, though both are plausible.

  42. David Marjanović said,

    September 13, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

    Here I go, 10 years of English at school, then 8 years of reading & writing English every day, giving conference talks in English, and so on… and I had no idea that people who don't generally drop their aitches drop them in unstressed pronouns. <wince> <wail>

    Though it's not really suprising in hindsight. In German, the /h/ vanished without a trace from the very same pronouns (er, ihm, ihr, ihnen) around 1000 years ago, and there has apparently never been an aitch-dropping dialect of German.

  43. Aaron Davies said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 9:29 am

    Among my friends, it's generally sufficient to simply repeat the "er" word with appropriate stress–the actual punchline is considered completely superfluous.

  44. Zubon said,

    September 15, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    neminem, somehow I immediately thought of HMC. Which is the geek dorm? Most of the folks I knew were from Linde or East, which don't seem like candidates. Are Patri numbers still in use?

  45. Mateo Crawford said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 8:41 am

    There are fewer examples with him

    There's a great deal of unexplored comedic potential in loanwords and jargon from Hebrew: Gibborim? Qlippothim?

  46. Grendl Xavier said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

    The "Jamaica" line pre-dates Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. I've heard a routine recorded in the teens in which that line is part of a group referred to as "hoary old chestnuts."

    But I like others don't think "Liquour" needs to be delivered in any particular dialect. My two-year-old could deliver that line. On the other hand, lines like, "How is getting up at six o'clock in the morning like a pig's tail?" are distinctly British.

  47. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 1:05 pm

    Grendl: we've traced the "Jamaica" joke back to 1913 now — see followups here and here. Would love to hear an early recording of it, though.

  48. neminem said,

    September 18, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    Just stumbled back here for entirely unrelated reasons… Zubon: I am, in fact, referring to East. I have heard it's changed fairly significantly since the days of Patri numbers… East is by far the geekiest, gamery-est, meme-iest dorm around, these days, and has been for as long as I've known it (which is ~6 years, now, including my prefrosh year).

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment