[Ads-l] Who was that lady I saw you with last night?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Sep 16 18:38:36 UTC 2017

One point on the old joke, not related to its origin:  
(On my unpacking of the joke, B isn’t intending to insult his wife—or is pretending not to be intending to do so, if he really does intend the “male put-down of wives” AMZ refers to--even though A, and we, would naturally take him to be doing just that.) 

While Arnold is on target in focusing on the joke’s exploitation of the “polite” feature of “lady”, there’s something else going on.  A number of references to the exchange, often citing Rodney Dangerfield, actually offer it in the (misremembered?) version as 

A: “Who was that woman I saw you with last night?”
B: “That was no woman, that was my wife.”

—where the punchline (entailing that my wife is “no woman”) doesn’t involve the politeness dimension--cf. e.g. https://njmonthly.com/articles/restaurant-reviews/scala-del-nonna/.  The joke is perhaps a bit less effective (as well as a bit less frequently told) this way, but it still works on another level, because in both versions there’s a plausible sense in which A’s referring to (as it happens) Mrs. B is implicating (intending to suggest) that the lady/woman in question is *not* B’s wife.  This involves a classic pragmatic deduction that Grice himself described as follows:

Anyone who uses a sentence of the form X is meeting a woman this evening would normally implicate that the person to be met was someone other than X’s wife, mother, sister, or perhaps even close platonic friend…When someone, by using the form of expression an X, implicates that the X does not belong to or is not otherwise closely connected with some identifiable person, the implicature is present because the speaker has failed to be specific in a way in which he might have been expected to be specific.                                                      
(H. P. Grice, “Logic and conversation” [1967], in _Studies in the Way of Words_ pp. 37-8)

So B, knowing his wife’s identity, would have implicated in saying “I’m meeting a woman tonight” that the woman is not his wife, while all A implicates in asking B the question “Who was that lady/woman I saw you with last night”, is that for all A knows, she’s not B’s wife (or mother, or sister,…).

B’s wife is a woman (or even a lady), but he wouldn’t ordinarily describe her as "a woman” or “a lady”, since to do so is less informative, just as I wouldn’t normally call a hot day a warm one.  To belabor the point, B’s intends his response to be taken as “That was no [person I would describe as “a woman”/“a lady”], that was [a person I would describe as “my wife”]; the alternative reading turns the “innocent” response into a punchline.   

Interestingly, the joke tends to disappear if B’s response is 

“That was not {a lady/a woman}, that was my wife"

which doesn’t allow B's intended (or pseudo-intended) metalinguistic reading, but only the one on which B is saying something false, rude, or hostile. 

(Sorry to anyone who was offended at my ruining the joke.) 

> On Sep 16, 2017, at 1:42 PM, Arnold M. Zwicky <zwicky at STANFORD.EDU> wrote:
> ... no lady: wife
> on the old joke, on my blog:
> https://arnoldzwicky.org/2017/09/16/the-nlw-punchline/
> quote detective needed...
> arnold
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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