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A footnote in Steven Strogatz's NYT opinion piece on negative numbers (he's in favor of them, I think) is a good excuse to revisit my inadequate (but apparently canonical) collection of the witticisms of Sidney Morgenbesser ("If P, so why not Q?", 8/5/2004), and to ask if anyone has more to add to the list.

I'll contribute some quotations from Wikipedia that were missing from my 2004 list:

Morgenbesser was leaving a subway station in New York City and put his pipe in his mouth as he was ascending the steps. A police officer told him that there was no smoking on the subway. Morgenbesser pointed out that he was leaving the subway, not entering it, and hadn't lit up yet anyway. The cop repeated his injunction. Morgenbesser repeated his observation. After a few such exchanges, the cop saw he was beaten and fell back on the oldest standby of enfeebled authority: "If I let you do it, I'd have to let everyone do it." To this the old professor replied, "Who do you think you are, Kant?" The word "Kant" was mistaken for a vulgar epithet and Morgenbesser had to explain the situation at the police station.

To B.F. Skinner, "Let me see if I understand your thesis. You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?"

Morgenbesser once set this as an exam question: “It is often said that Marx and Freud went too far. How far would you go?”

"The only problem with pragmatism is that it's completely useless."

When asked his opinion of pragmatism, Morgenbesser replied "It's all very well in theory but it doesn't work in practice."

Asked to prove a questioner's existence, Morgenbesser shot back, "Who's asking?"


  1. uberVU - social comments said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by glynmoody: Morgenbesserisms – just the job for a Monday #witticisms…

  2. Nick Lamb said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    The proximate cause of the makes that first anecdote less funny than it might otherwise be. Of course the steps of a New York Subway entrance are probably solid concrete and thus unlikely to catch fire even if you were to light a match and thoughtlessly drop it.

  3. MKR said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    I completely forgot about his math column. Thanks for the reminder! :D

  4. Faldone said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    Of course, one should note that the negativity in Morgenbesser's "Yeah, yeah" is carried not by the doubling of the positive but by the sarcastic tone of voice. The same, "Yeah, yeah," if uttered with enthusiasm, would just be a more intense positive.

    [(myl) I agree that it's possible for a skilled actor to perform "yeah, yeah" as an enthusiastic assent or a sarcastic dismissal — but I'm skeptical that a "sarcastic tone of voice" or "sarcastic intonation" or whatever is how it's done, because I'm skeptical that any such thing exists. See here, here, and here, among other places, for some discussion.

    I'd be happy to be shown to be wrong on this point, but I've never seen any evidence that I thought was even slightly convincing. In particular, from the fact that you (or at least a skilled actor) can perform a certain string of words so as to convey either meaning X or meaning Y, you can't conclude that there's an "X (or Y) tone of voice (or intonation)". That would be like starting from the observation that the morpheme string light+house+keep+er can mean two quite different things, with a typical difference in pronunciation, and concluding that there must therefore be a "coastal guardian stress pattern".]

  5. peter said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    Children aren't the only people who struggle with the concept of negative numbers. According to historian Joan Richards, for 19th century English logician Augustus de Morgan, "the concept of number did not include negatives", at least, not in his initial tenure as Professor of Mathematics at University College London. He later changed his mind.

    See p. 148 of:

    Joan L. Richards [2002]: "In a rational world all radicals would be exterminated": mathematics, logic and secular thinking in Augustus De Morgan's England. Science in Context, 15 (1): 137-164.

  6. Will said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    Regarding the article, when he was showing why neg x neg = pos instead of using the Friend/Enemy graphs, he could have just used a slightly restructured version of the example used for why pos x neg = neg:

    If I owe three dollars a day, then three days ago I had nine dollars more than I do now (-3 x -3 = 9).

    But I guess the article was more centrally about the Friend/Enemy graphs themselves, while the negative numbers were more of a segway,

  7. The Volokh Conspiracy » Blog Archive » Philosopher Wit said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    […] Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log), attributing this to Columbia philosophy professor Sidney Morgenbesser: Morgenbesser was leaving a […]

  8. Echoes and Mirrors » Daily Links said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    […] . . . So Long as They Aren't Successful at It. And They Don't Talk About It., Morgenbesserisms, Castrating John Mayer, New-Minted Coins, The Event of Truth, Airborne laser shoots down a […]

  9. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    As a mathematics instructor, I can confirm that many people even today have some trouble intuitively accepting why negative times negative is positive. In fact, even though I went on to get a doctorate in math, I remember around grade 9 receiving an explanation from a teacher that seemed vague and unconvincing and disingenuous (something along the lines of "enemy of enemy is friend"). I find using a list or table of numbers, as in the article linked to, is probably the most straightforward way.

  10. Amy Stoller said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

    Re: Sarcasm; I don't see why it would take a skilled actor to say the same words sarcastically and non-sarcastically. Any speaker can do it, and any listener can "read" the difference – at least in the US. I can't speak as to other cultures, except to say that I don't think I've ever heard the American sarcastic tone ever used in England; and for that reason find English sarcasm far more devastating. You may be right, of course. Perhaps it's like Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: I know it when I hear it.

  11. Alex said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    If there isn't a sarcastic tone of voice, whyis it that people generally seem to have more trouble identifying sarcasm is writing (e.g. online), than when its spoken?

    [(myl) People have more trouble with lots of things when reading vs. listening.

    For example, accurate transcripts of extemporaneous speech are often very hard to read, because of disfluencies, the effects of emphasis, and so on. That doesn't mean that there's a "disfluent tone" to keep listeners straight — it's just that there's an enormous amount of additional information in timing, pitch, voice quality, and so on, which isn't represented in writing.

    You can hear when a speaker is out of breath, or on the verge of crying, or very sleepy. That doesn't mean that there's an "out of breath tone" or a "verge of crying tone", or a "very sleepy tone". You can't just reify every possible inference from mode of performance as an atomic "tone" or "intonation" or whatever.]

  12. Sean Edison-Albright said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    "it's just that there's an enormous amount of additional information in timing, pitch, voice quality, and so on, which isn't represented in writing."

    So there could be sarcastic delivery, just not tone?

    [(myl) In some cases (fewer than you might think!), a phrase can be performed so as to be clearly perceived as meant sarcastically. The means for accomplishing this are (as far as I can tell) various and variable. There's no single phonetic characteristic (whether of voice quality, or of pitch contour, or anything else) that is used in all utterances meant sarcastically, or even in all utterances both meant sarcastically and generally perceived to be so. And any phonetic characteristic used as part of a sarcastic performance can be (and often is) used in non-sarcastic utterances as well.

    That's how things look to me, anyhow.

    From anyone who thinks that there's a specific way to make any utterance unambiguously (or even somewhat reliably) seem sarcastic, and who also believes that sarcastic utterances always (or even usually) display this property, I'd request for a start:

    1) a definition of what you mean by "sarcasm";
    2) a description of the "sarcastic tone" or method for making things sound sarcastic.

    Then we could try examining what happens in some sarcasm-rich environments, we could do some production and perception experiments, etc.]

  13. Army1987 said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    Once upon a time I remembered a friend of mine that he wasn't allowed to smoke in the station where we were, and he said he was just holding his cigarette in his hand, not smoking it.

    (And I've tried to say "lighthouse keeper" and "light housekeeper", and realized that they sound much more alike than I would have expected…)

  14. D.O. said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 11:35 pm

    Re: sarcasm. You can deliver sarcastic remarks in a deadpan style. The only cue will be context.

  15. peter said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 4:20 am

    "Re: sarcasm. You can deliver sarcastic remarks in a deadpan style. The only cue will be context."

    Isn't that Chandler Bing's whole shtick on "Friends"?

  16. Ben said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 6:28 am

    And, as peter alluded to, frequently the only necessary context is the particular speaker.

  17. Ben said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    Re: light / house / keeper —

    "lighthouse keeper" seem likes a real thing to me, albeit a but unusual
    "light housekeeper" seems like a very odd phrase that almost nobody would ever actually say

    thus, without context, and spoken without any unusual emphasis or pausing, that word sequence always sounds like "lighthouse keeper" to me.

  18. John Walden said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 7:08 am

    A "light housekeeper" may be an odd phrase; Au pairs, though, are often expected to do light housekeeping, but might complain if their duties included lighthouse keeping.

    (A lot more mileage could be got out of "whorehouse": keeper, manager, cleaner, band, pianist, dog, wine and so on and on.)

  19. Largo said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    "As a mathematics instructor, I can confirm that many people even today have some trouble intuitively accepting why negative times negative is positive."

    Alas, children are not taught the arithmetic of complex numbers. It would make "negative times negative is positive" as plain as day. (It would also let them to factor polynomials fully to binomials in high school.)

    Such arithmetic is surely no harder than long division.

  20. Faldone said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    I would say that there's no "sarcastic tone of voice" in much the same way as there's no "(U. S.) Southern accent" . The way something is said sarcastically will definitely vary depending on what is being said, what the greater context is, and who is saying it. I maintain that this does not mean that the same person, in the same context will not say, e.g., "Yeah, yeah," in different ways that can be reliably interpreted as being sarcastic or not sarcastic. Trying to identify this "tone of voice" with waveform analyses, especially waveform analyses of a phrase that has entered the common lexicon to mean some specific thing without regard to its logical meaning. Telling someone that uses "I could care less" that they are being illogical is like telling an atheist that he is being illogical to tell someone "good-bye."

  21. peter said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    Largo said (February 16, 2010 @ 9:19 am)

    "Alas, children are not taught the arithmetic of complex numbers. It would make "negative times negative is positive" as plain as day."

    So, the solution to the problem of children not understanding the counter-intuitive properties of fictional mathematical entities, negative counting numbers, is to teach them about mathematical entities having even less basis in existential reality, the complex numbers? Why not teach them the octonions while we are at it! [Uttered with a strong tone of sarcasm!]

  22. peter said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    Amy Stoller said (February 15, 2010 @ 5:25 pm):

    "I can't speak as to other cultures, except to say that I don't think I've ever heard the American sarcastic tone ever used in England"

    An example of a common US sarcasm rarely found in British speech IME is saying, "Yeah, right", to express disagreement.

  23. Peter Taylor said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    @peter, why octonions? Just teach them the axioms of field theory and leave them to figure out the rest.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    @Ben: "Light housekeeper" seems to have meant something once, as in this article.

  25. Cameron said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    @peter – I think Yeah, Right is used in British speech; cf. the song "Yeah Right" by Girlschool, from their 1981 album Hit And Run.

  26. peter said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 3:45 am

    Cameron — You may correct, but my experience runs counter to what you say. In two decades living in Britain, I've never heard a British speaker use "Yeah, right" in a sarcastic way. Working in America and with Americans around the world, I have heard it numerous times from American speakers.

  27. John Walden said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 4:57 am

    peter – I can't agree with you:

    and many more from other impeccably BrE sources. I'm sure I've heard it most of my long BrE speaking life; maybe I've moved in more sarcastic circles than you! Or has the deadpan British delivery made you think that you were being agreed with when all the time you weren't?

  28. Graeme said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    Lovely stuff. But the pedantic jurisprude in me has to rewrite Morgenbesser v The Police.

    It's unjust to be hit without no reason. But it would additionally be unfair if such irrational punishment were meted out to some and not others.

  29. Graeme said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    @ Peter. 'Yeah, right', said sarcastically, crept into Australian English from American some time back.

    I've only recently become aware of the the habit of some Americans of saying 'Right' and 'Yeah, right' and 'Right, right' in the middle of conversations. More as an acknowledgement of what has just been said or as a segue, than a deliberate affirmation. When I first came across this (in a woman from the North East) I was thrown. And still am, because it is so unfamiliar I always begin to imagine it as sarcasm; but it is usually said with a gentle earnestness rather than deadpan or with falling inflection. I heard it again tonight in an interview with the Appalachian author of 'Serena'. I'd be interested to know more about it, or whether it has roots in other dialects.

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    On seeing the claim that BrE lacked "yeah, right," I had independently thought of Girlschool as a counterexample before seeing that someone else had already noted it. Some may say it ain't Shakespeare, but hurrah for the persistence of a common literary culture.

  31. Robert said,

    February 18, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    I think Strogatz is at least partly a physicist, so those friend-enemy graphs seem to be a description of the use of the Ising model on graphs for social science. Of course, there's also the relationship to graph colouring (in this case using two colours).

  32. Steven Gross said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    One of my favorite Morgenbesser quips:

    Morgenbesser gave Quine a tie as a present. Quine thanked him. Morgenbesser replied: "Don't mention it … use it."

    [I don't know if that's apocryphal. If there's anyone who doesn't get it, google 'use mention'. Not that you'll then find it funny afterwards.)

  33. Morgenbesser « The Cold Hut said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 12:17 am

    […] Thanks to the Language Log, I have just discovered Sidney Morgenbesser. Here are a few quotations to whet your […]

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    February 26, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

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  35. David said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    Sorry to chime in so late, but I wanted to point out that in the case of "yeah, yeah" it is always negative, even in speech, and the clue we have for that is, thank Lynn Truss, the comma.

    In speaking, a doubled affirmative that was meant to be affirmative would be intoned and "transcribed" as either: "Yeah. Yeah." or "Yeah! Yeah!"

    But saying "yeah, yeah" I would contend is always negative, because of the intonation pattern implied by the different punctuation marks.

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