Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Chicken/Road epigram: a rough analysis (without references)

My friend Maureen asks about a comment I made somewhere out here (in here?) in the E-cosmos: to wit, about the famous "Why did the chicken cross the road?" epigram and how it is important. Of course, I am away from my references for once, and do not have my archives nearby. As I recall, however, there have been a number of detailed discussions on such jokes in various obscure academic journals, in the attempt to get some handle on the nature and structure of humour. I will see what I can do, just to give you a taste of this kind of thing.

First, I'll re-state the joke in its standard form:
Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?
A. To get to the other side.
The first thing which leaps to the attentive and scholarly mind is the similarity to the well-known liturgical Versicle/Response form, used by any number of religions, for example:
V. Adjutorium nostrum + in nomine Domini.
R. Qui fecit caelum et terram.
So we have immediately set ourselves up for something solemn and indeed ritualistic. The fact that this formula is almost never encountered in a solemn or liturgical setting is not relevant; whole theaters watching "Star Wars" have been known to give a liturgical response when the pilots of the Rebellion are dismissed with "May the Force be with you always." There are also any number of analogies from the world of sports, which I am sure the reader can see.

Now, upon examining the actual statements, we do not find a statement/refrain or solemn invocation as in the above Latin example; rather we find that our chicken/road epigram has a more primitive question/answer form. This is (according to the best researchers) the only two-part dialog which is of greater antiquity than those used in solemn rituals, appearing in such well-known forms as
Q. Mom, what's for dinner?
A. Finish your vegetables, dear.
or the perhaps even more ancient:
Q. Do I have to go to bed now?
A. Yes, dear; goodnight!
So again we have set ourselves up with word-patterns and clausal structures among the most ancient in human experience. (And ancient, I might add, in both the individual as well as the racial senses.)

So we know that this formula structure is (1) solemn (2) ritualistic (3) well-known (4) ancestral, and therefore might be called an archetype (I think the standard reference is to Schöder, but as I said I am away from my texts at present.)

Now, let us proceed to the actual text (the verbi-in-se, as Dr. Vang calls it). The analysis I have in my files goes into a lot about the fact that it is a chicken (not a human, dog or rodent, or indeed any other avian) but I am presently at a loss to recall what the importance of that is. Of course the dramatic turn (Tolkien's "eucatastrophe", if the term can be applied to such a short anecdote) occurs in the apodictic answer, which resides fully in the inherent meaning of "to cross" - though any number of commenters bring in connections to Calvary, or to mathematics (one form of vector multiplication is called the cross product, which is always out of the plane of the two original vectors; this has its own subtle relation to Calvary as numerous other commenters have observed!)

But I am getting very pedantic here, and without my sources this may be quite misleading. At least I have made an attempt at an answer, which may help.

There is one other comment I ought to add about this, because it is Chestertonian. Sometimes the things which are large are much much harder to see than the things which are small: stars, for example. The typical GKC quote is this:
"...The skull seems broken as with some big weapon, but there's no weapon at all lying about, and the murderer would have found it awkward to carry it away, unless the weapon was too small to be noticed."
"Perhaps the weapon was too big to be noticed," said the priest, with an odd little giggle.
[GKC, "The Three Tools of Death" in The Innocence of Father Brown]
There is quite a lot of humour in the mere fact that the answer to the question is obvious and not at all what is expected.

Which is a lot like the Resurrection.

Humour, perhaps, being just the earthly translation of heavenly joy.

So Maureen, I hope this helps a little - I am sorry I forgot my refs. and delayed so long in a response. I hope to post a more detailed revision when I have a chance. (There's a really good explanation of the "three monkeys" joke in there - I will do that too.)


At 27 April, 2006 08:56, Blogger Love2Learn Mom said...

I always liked the joke that mixed 2 kinds of "crossing" jokes in order to "surprise" you with a very obvious answer...

What do you get when you cross the Atlantic with the Titanic...


At 27 April, 2006 19:09, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Supposedly this dates back to - ah - a great botanist, whose name escapes me. The journalist interviewing him asked if he had any current projects of interest.

The botanist (bother, I forget who!) said, "Yes, I'm attempting to cross a milkweed with an eggplant."

The journalist, somewhat shocked, asked, "What do you hope to get out of that?"

To which the botanist replied, "custard pie."

(I sure could go for some myself.)

At 29 April, 2006 17:38, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

I finally remembered: it was Burbank.

I don't have the reference at hand (I saw it a very long time ago) so I cannot cite details - whether this was an actual quote or mere legend I cannot say.


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