My Ex-Girlfriend and I Had a Baby

a year and a half ago, and my former fiancee will soon (cross my fingers) give birth to my second baby.

This brings up an interesting linguistic point: It is true that my lovely wife (the woman to whom I'm referring in the preceding sentence) is in one literal sense my ex-girlfriend, and also my former fiancee -- she used to be my girlfriend and then my fiancee, and now isn't, so I suppose she must be ex- and former. Yet of course one would never say that she's my ex-girlfriend or former fiancee, unless one wants to be amusing (I set aside whether one is likely to succeed in being amusing).

And then the question: What similar phrases can you point to in which a word's (or very short noun phrase's) literal sum-of-the-parts meaning is amusingly different from the meaning that is likely to be understood by normal users of the English language? I'm not just looking for literal inconsistencies (e.g., "ice cream" isn't cream made of ice, but that's not amusing) or for gags based on people's not understanding the components of the phrase (e.g., telling a 10-year-old that he's a homo sapiens, that his actress sister is a thespian, and that his epidermis is showing).

Please post examples in the comments, but please read the rules carefully before doing so. Also, try to make them funny!

Eugene Volokh (www):
By the way, Robert Becker reminded me of a similar item I'd heard about before:
I introduced my one and only and still current wife once as "my first wife." She was Not Amused. But it fits your criteria, I think.
4.20.2005 7:07pm
Matt Corbett (mail):
There's an trick question (topical these days) that asks "Which two ex-Cardinals have plaques at Yankee Stadium?"

The answer is of course Paul VI and John Paul II
4.20.2005 7:26pm
Frank Fenneran (mail):
I often introduce my wife of 23 years as "My First Wife", which immediately makes one think I have been divorced, until they think about it.
4.20.2005 7:35pm
Douglas E. Appelt (mail):
The literature on Gricean implicatures is full of examples of stuff like this, although I can't bring any really humorous ones to mind immediately. If you Google "Gricean implicature" you'll probably learn more than you wanted to know.

Quantity implicatures
John has 2 children. (true, but misleading if he has 3)
Some of my friends went to college (true, but misleading if all did)

Order implicature:
John opened the window and stuck out his head.
(Implicature is that the actions happend IN THAT ORDER, not just a logical conjunction)

Manner implicature:
John caused Bill to die.
(A very odd thing to say if John pulled out a gun and shot him. The implicature is that the relation between John's action and Bill's death is some indirect chain of events, because if it weren't there are better ways to express it.)

Quality implicature:
Boys will be boys.
(People usually don't go around asserting tautologies. The implicature leads one to a more informative conclusion)
4.20.2005 7:42pm
Marc W:
Fogive me if this is not exactly wht you're asking or, but your post reminds me of the old bit about "Did you ever stop beating your wife?"
4.20.2005 7:50pm
Evelyn Blaine:
Old Oxford joke, told to me by an analytic philosopher teaching a class on modality:

Aged don, walking through the quad late at night and stumbling upon a drunk undergraduate: "Who might you be, young man?"

Undergraduate: "Julius Caesar."

Don: "Don't be cheeky."

Undergraduate: "But, sir, you asked me who I might be, not who I am."
4.20.2005 7:59pm
David A. Smith (mail):
All doctors or nurses:
"And how are we today?"
Which always makes me want to clock them.
4.20.2005 8:08pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
The ordered conjunction examples mentioned by Douglas can really make a difference in the following case:

"I had a few drinks and drove home."

The order is important pragmatically, but most linguists believe it's not semantically important. Logically speaking, that sentence really is true if the driving was before the drinking. You just wouldn't say it that way if you really wanted to communicate that.
4.20.2005 8:15pm
Frank Fenneran (mail):
A friend of ours has 12 children who range from a baby to grown and married. When they go somewhere, it is obviously a spectacle. Almost invariably, someone will ask: "Are these all your children?" (meaning, of course are they all yours), to which my friend responds: "No, they're not all with us today." (because there are normally a few missing at any given time)
4.20.2005 8:17pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail):
My father was ten years younger than his siblings, two of which were girls, so he would refer to his "younger sister".
It is my hope that eugene's wife is still his friend.
4.20.2005 8:29pm
Different River (mail) (www):
These things are quite prevalent throughout the legal profession. "Matrimonial law" should based on the literal meaning of "matrimonial" be about marriage; in fact it is about divorce, which is the opposite. "Family Law" is about family dissolution (divorce) not formation. In a class on "contracts" one is taught how to get out of them more than how to make or interpret them. A "public defender" does not defend the public; she or he defends someone who is has allegedly violated the (laws of the) public. "Criminal Procedure" sounds like it should mean a way to break into a building (lockpicking would be an example), but instead it means ... well, not the opposite exactgly, but determining if some procedure, if it took place, was in fact criminal.
4.20.2005 8:56pm
Dave! (mail) (www):

"I had a few drinks and drove home."

Not to mention cultural context. I frequently have a few drinks and drive home. Drinks of diet coke.
4.20.2005 9:13pm
Christine Hurt (mail):
My undergraduate institution's alumni association sells stickers for your automobile that say "Texas Tech Ex-Students Association." To me, that implies that the driver was kicked out of Texas Tech and has formed an organization with other expellees.
4.20.2005 9:22pm
Christine Hurt (mail):
#2 -- I've never understood the phrase "meteoric rise." To me, meteors fall, crash, and burn. So, to say that some hot new actor/singer/law professor is experiencing a meteoric rise seems to foreshadow something horrible.
4.20.2005 9:23pm
alkali (mail):
Different River observes:

"Matrimonial law" should based on the literal meaning of "matrimonial" be about marriage; in fact it is about divorce ...

Cf. "tax law," "environmental law."
4.20.2005 9:26pm
Brian Moore:
How 'bout:

- Meet the new Pope, ex-Nazi Benedict XVI

- The infallible Joe Ratzinger!
4.20.2005 9:46pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
Other examples:

"Not everyone will be there" has the implicature that someone will be there. Otherwise, you'd say that it may be that no one will show up. Semantically, though, the sentence is consistent with no one showing up.

Athanasius was fleeing from his enemies. When he ran into a few who didn't recognize, they asked him if they'd seen the traitor Athanasius. He responded, "He's not far now", and they ran off to catch him before he did get too far.

Similar to Douglas' case of underreporting the number of your children is telling someone that you met with a bishop yesterday, when in fact you met with the pope.
4.20.2005 9:51pm
Brian Moore:
Okay, since it's topical, I've got one more Pope reference.

The new Pope isn't catholic...


if he likes Chinese, Mexican and French food.
4.20.2005 10:04pm
Playing on the "first wife" angle, there is 8 years betweeen myself and my oldest sister. (She being 8 years younger that I) My father would introduce his daughters, and then introduce me as his son by his first wife. The gap in the years enhanced the illusion. Our mother was never happy with that one.
4.20.2005 10:07pm
Donna B. (mail) (www):
Different River,

Your examples remind me of Swift - "...a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white..."
4.20.2005 10:18pm
A satirical line from a few years ago;

"Next on the Jerry Springer show; Men who sleep with their mother in law's daughters."
4.20.2005 10:26pm
Cathy (mail) (www):
Seen in a Leo Rosten book:

Person 1: I just had a baby.
Person 2: Mazel tov! Was it a boy or a girl?
Person 1: Yes.
4.20.2005 10:36pm
Alice Marie Beard:
My husband has written a few law review articles. A while back I did googles his name and found someone quoting him. When I read the quote to my husband, he said, "They've got it wrong. This is what it should say." I emailed the person who was in error, not mentioning how I knew about the error. The man wrote back, surely with the hair on his back up, and asked, "Just how do you think that YOU would know what this man wrote?" ... I could have responded that the correction came from my husband, the author, or I could have responded that I had typed and proofread the article. Instead, I wrote, "I sleep with the author sometimes."
4.20.2005 10:38pm
Speedwell (mail):
I've had a few nasty things happen to me in the past, but things are better now; I have been sharing a home with my terrific fiance for seven years as of this month. He is a professional animator, and kind of quiet, and I'm a few years older than he is. Neither of us is exactly conventional, but we're not a couple of crazy hippies. Still, it's hilarious to explain to people on the Internet that "I'm a double divorcee currently living in sin with a moody, longhaired young artist." Ooh, la, la.
4.20.2005 10:48pm
Ellen Dahlgren:
I once told a friend that I had spoken recently to a mutual acquaintance whom neither of us had seen in a year. I commented "I didn't tell him you were pregnant." When she protested "But, I'm NOT pregnant," I replied "That's why I didn't tell him that you were."
4.20.2005 11:22pm
Patrick McKenzie (mail):
"Things got a bit frothy this afternoon and, in the midst of the commotion, the batter was splattered all over the pitcher. It was absolutely disgusting -- the pitcher had to be retired, and the batter is just beyond hope."

"Cross-examination at appellate proceedings where some justices have recused themselves: one-on-one with a half-court."

"My connection was being very unhelpful so I throttled him and opportunistically unchoked the one from Japan I had in reserve. Of course, when I got back to him later he wasn't too pleased and choked me. Tit-for-tat and all that."

(Makes a lot more sense if you realize I'm a network engineer talking about the Bittorrent protocol.)

"Let it never be said that America is the only country with racial issues. If you go to the Scottish parliament half of the MP are Clansmen -- clearly they need lessons in diversity."

"John was the Father of at least a couple dozen kids around the neighborhood -- no one ever got an exact count -- and hadn't seen most of his Brothers in twenty years, literally couldn't go a day without emptying half a bottle of wine (and you should have seen him on Sunday!), and to hear the neighborhood cops tell it he was present at every third death in the precinct. John, for his part, never claimed he was innocent. "
4.20.2005 11:57pm
Me Myself:
"I haven't missed work in years."

When someone I don't want to talk to asks for me on my cellphone:
"He's not home right now. May I take a message?"

Just to be a punk, when answering the phone live:
"You have reached the phone of (my name), please leave a message and I'll get back to you at my earliest convenience."
4.21.2005 12:29am
Z (mail):
Maitre D' to incoming restaurant guests: Do you have reservations?

Guests: Plenty, but we're going to try it this once anyway.
4.21.2005 12:37am
Clara (mail):
The British sitcom "Fawlty Towers" features a hotel manager (John Cleese) and a Spanish waiter. Cleese instructs the waiter to "throw away" some trash in the hotel's dining room -- so, of course, the waiter tosses it across the room.

Another joke, possibly a Henny Youngman routine:
"I've been in bed for three days with acute hepatitis."
"Really? Which one? Those hepatitis girls are both adorable."
4.21.2005 12:38am
Clara (mail):
The British sitcom "Fawlty Towers" features a hotel manager (John Cleese) and a Spanish waiter. Cleese instructs the waiter to "throw away" some trash in the hotel's dining room -- so, of course, the waiter tosses it across the room.

Another joke, possibly a Henny Youngman routine:
"I've been in bed for three days with acute hepatitis."
"Really? Which one? Those hepatitis girls are both adorable."

One more -- one the telephone:
"Ahem... is this the party to whom I am speaking?"
4.21.2005 12:39am
gekkobear (mail):
Well, when I was 8 or so I was riding in the car ans saw a sign at the interection that read "Old Highway 64 does not stop". I pondered this for some time trying to figure out how to make a road that doesn't stop... I decided it was a circle for quite some time. I felt really dumb once I started driving and rememebered that.
4.21.2005 1:12am
lawyer denise:
My father, who is something of a neatnick, was complaining about an inadequate vacuum cleaner, saying "It sucks."

Gekkobear's reminds me of another road sign that always struck me as amusing: "Picnic table 1000 feet."
4.21.2005 1:14am
Kevin Murphy (mail) (www):
I find it necessary these days to refer to my business partner as "my business partner." It used to be I'd just say "my partner", but that term seems to have gained a new meaning.
4.21.2005 2:19am
Ray Gardner (mail):
I teach Physics at a private high school.

The best I can come up with is this:

Rebecca: "Can I blow my nose real fast?"

Me: "I have no idea how fast you can blow your nose. Why don't you show us?"
4.21.2005 2:57am
Ray Gardner (mail):
Or maybe this one. You would have to be driving on east of Apache Junction in AZ on Hwy 60 to see this sign.

"Silly Mountain Road"

Now, I always ask whomever I'm with "Is the road simply a silly, mountain road, or is the name of the mountain 'Silly Mountain.'"

No one ever seems to appreciate this.
4.21.2005 3:00am
Among philosophers, the standard example of an analytic statement is "a bachelor is an unmarried man." It's supposed to be true by definition. I don't think Quine used this counterexample, but in the spirit of his effort at breaking down the analytic/synthetic distinction it has been observed that one rarely hears the Pope referred to as a bachelor.
4.21.2005 3:09am
Alan K. Henderson (mail) (www):
"That bar sells Coke to some of its customers."

Are we talking the brownish stuff bottled in Atlanta, or the white powdery stuff imported from Colombia?
4.21.2005 3:30am
Blar (mail) (www):
In the USSR, I've heard, if a Russian lost a footrace to an American they'd say that the Russian placed second, while the American finished next-to-last. Other misleading turns of phrase include calling something the Trial of the Century (when it's the biggest trial since 2001) or the best X I've had in years (when it's the only X you've had in years).
4.21.2005 4:07am
Dave Dee (mail):
I would like to pass a couple from the late comic Mitch Hedberg (sp?) that I think fit your criteria:

1. "I used to do drugs...I still do drugs, but I used to do them too."

2. "I haven't slept for, like, 10 days...'cause, like, ten days is too long to go without sleep, man!"
4.21.2005 8:08am
Dave Dee (mail):
Sorry! I screwed the second one up! It should be,

"I haven't slept for, like, 10 days...'cause ten days is too long to sleep, man!"
4.21.2005 8:41am
yclipse (mail):
A 60-year-old lawyer recently made reference to something "my first husband" had told her. On a little inquiry, I learned that she and her husband have been married (to each other) for 36 years, and are still married, and that it was the first marriage for both.
4.21.2005 9:14am
yclipse (mail):
A similar point: I am married. Previously I was married to a different woman. I could plausibly refer to each woman as "my last wife".
4.21.2005 9:35am
theParsonsFifth (mail) (www):
My father still refers to his current wife as his "trophy wife".

They've been married for 27 years and she is, of course, also my mother.
4.21.2005 10:40am
My mother and father are brother and sister. Not to each other, mind you, but still.
4.21.2005 11:26am
steve (mail):
Joe tells Bill something completely surprising.

Bill: I know!

Joe: How on earth do you know?

Bill: You just told me.
4.21.2005 11:58am
cc (mail):
The group Bowling for Soup has a song in which they ask someone to be "my next ex-girlfriend."
4.21.2005 11:58am
Frank J. (mail) (www):
I have a few with my dad (we're always kidding each other). When I'm introducing my dad to new people (such as my now financee), I ask him to tell the story about the time he strangled a guy in prison (he was a prison guard at a minimum security prison when he was young and once had to choke unconcious a drunk inmate trying to escape). I also say how, just before I was born, he supported our family by breaking into cars in South Central L.A. (he was a repo man for Ford, having to reposess many used cars they didn't have keys for).
4.21.2005 12:17pm
Frank J. (mail) (www):
Oh, and I remember this from a comedian who I forget the name of:

"I wrote a poem about my ex-girlfriend. It's entitled 'I Miss Her Sometimes'

"I ran into my ex-girlfriend today.
Then I backed up and ran into her again.
I miss her sometimes."
4.21.2005 12:23pm
Sean O'Hara (mail):
There's currently a thread in rec.arts.sf.written over the meaning of "frontier" and "border-town" -- for example, is it accurate to say, "Buffalo is a border-town on the Canadian frontier". Half the people are going with the literal meaning of the words, while the other half are insisting that the words imply a dangerous, on-the-outskirts-of-civilization atmosphere.

There are also a couple old riddles based upon connotations:

1) Two fathers and two sons go duck-huntin. Each one shoots a duck; none of them shoot the same duck, but in the end only three ducks are shot. How is that possible?

(The answer is that "two fathers and two sons" only implies the existence of four people; a father, son, and grandfather perfectly fit the criteria.)

2) A man and his son were in a serious car accident one day. The man died, but his son was transported to the emergency room. The doctor entered, looked at the boy, and said, "Oh my God, this is my son!" How can that be?

(The doctor's a woman. But if you ask most people, they'll run through all sorts of scenarios involving step-fathers and in-vitro fertilization before coming up with that answer. At least that's how it worked in the sociology class I took in the mid-90s. Perhaps the younger generation wouldn't have a problem with it.)
4.21.2005 12:46pm
Shawn L. (mail) (www):
From a post above:

Engaged bloggers are voracious newspaper readers, too.

So are bloggers who don't have a fiancee.
4.21.2005 12:58pm
"Looks like you've been missing a lot of work lately, Peter."
"I wouldn't exactly say I've been missing it, Bob!"

Also, every time I asked my teacher, "Can I go to the bathroom?"
"I don't know; can you?"
"May I go to the bathroom?"
4.21.2005 1:06pm
Eric James Stone (mail) (www):
I tell people that the first job I got out of law school was handling stock matters for a major automotive corporation.

I had a temp job stocking auto parts in a warehouse.
4.21.2005 1:06pm
Geoff Parmer (mail):
The follwoing exchange never fails when there is a birth in the family (or to a close relative).

Wise Guy: Jenny just gave birth last night!

Rube(big smile): Really?!? Was it a boy or a girl?

Wise Guy: Both!!!!!

Rube (bigger smile): Twins?!?

Wise Guy: No, a hermaphrodite.

Rube: Dead silence.

Try this sometime, it always works. (Be careful who you try it with as some may not find it humorous).
4.21.2005 1:19pm
TomHynes (mail):
When my older children misbehave in public, I explain that they are from my wife's first marriage.
4.21.2005 1:29pm
Thief (mail) (www):
Discussion with old college buddy of mine who was just married after a loooong series of relationships:

"Yeah, well, the whole 'sowing your wild oats' thing just got old."
"See, I've never understood that phrase. Wild oats sow all by themselves."
"Exactly. And mine were as wild as they get."
4.21.2005 2:06pm
Lawrence J. Siskind (mail):
Card attached to menu: "Today's Special."
Reaction from pollyanna-ish diner: "Everyday is special!"
4.21.2005 2:14pm
Xrlq (mail) (www):
I spent the first few years out of college doing [profanity preemptively deleted] jobs, one of which involved delivering pharmaceuticals to nursing homes. I told people I was a drug trafficker. I still do, but my statutory-law wife is not amused.
4.21.2005 2:32pm
Anny Ominous:
My real name is shared by a well-known senior-tour golfer. I've had a few "Are you THE Mr. So-and-so?" inquiries when making reservations for hotels and tee-times over the phone, to which I reply "Mrs. So certainly thinks I am." I've gotten a few perks and a lot of groans.
4.21.2005 2:40pm
Matt Bruce (mail) (www):
This is extremely lame but does seem to fit the category:

"How many months have 28 days?"

"All of them."
4.21.2005 2:46pm
Joshua Hosseinof:
One example most relevant to the law is the term "ex-felon" which I've seen in news articles quite often. There is no such thing as an ex-felon unless you have been given a pardon. You are either a felon in jail or a felon who has been released from jail after the prison sentence was completed. Either way you're still a felon.
4.21.2005 2:58pm
Xrlq (mail) (www):
Either that, or no one is a felon except while the felony is in progress. In that case, there are a lot of ex-felons in and out of prison. Many will become felons again in the future, but never mind that. Ex-Presidents can become President again (think Grover Cleveland), and your ex-girlfriend could become your girlfriend again, too.
4.21.2005 3:05pm
An good friend was a member of a college fraternity that was administratively disbanded and kicked off campus. They reorganized as a private drinking society, and took three new Greek letters for their name.

To this day, he still tells marks that he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

(He also calls his resume "The Greatest Work of Fiction Ever Published," tongue planted firmly in cheek.)
4.21.2005 3:25pm
Goober (mail):
"Each day lovelier than the next" is a favorite. Meaning they're getting uglier. (Usually invoked not in relation to days, but I thought I'd be nice.)
4.21.2005 3:48pm
dgm (www):
Every couple of months my husband will report, "I got my hair cut today," to which I always respond, "Which one?"
4.21.2005 5:03pm
Tim Harden (mail) (www):
Two examples:

First, from the Odyssey, Odysseus tells the cyclops Polyphemus that his name is a Greek word that means "Nobody." So when they ask Polyphemus if anyone was trying to kill him by force or treachery (Odysseus has stuck a spear in his eye), Polyphemus replies "Nobody is killing me by force or treachery!"

Second, from another great work of Western Civilization, So I Married an Axe Murderer:
Rose: I won't tell Harriet anything happened, Charlie.
Charlie: But Rose, nothing did happen.
Rose chuckles: Be careful, Charlie.
4.21.2005 5:14pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Ex-con (or ex-felon) was already mentioned.

I've also never understood why someone who goes to a meeting or a party is an "attendee".

I took a long lunch to do an errand for my mother[*], and when I returned I explained that I'd been having lunch with another man's wife.

[*]She lives in the next state. Here in New England that meant I had to travel from central Middlesex County about 20 minutes to southern New Hampshire.
4.21.2005 5:19pm
Jim (mail):

At the negotiating table, you may place a proposal "on the table" meaning that it is to be considered. When you have the floor, however, if your proposal is "tabled" then it is removed from consideration.
4.21.2005 7:09pm
Goober (mail):
I don't suppose "manslaughter" being identical to "man's laughter" counts, eh? Oh, no. That's terrible. I'm sorry, everybody.
4.21.2005 7:45pm
chris (www):
Formal logic says that the statement "not A" implies "if A then B" regardless of B. A colleague of mine (a professor) when he had to write a recommendation for a student he held in low regard would write "We are not hiring in his field this year, but if we were, I would want to hire him."
4.21.2005 11:57pm
chris (www):
Other good recommendation letter lines.

"No man would be better for this job."

"You would be lucky to get this man to work for you."

"I cannot recommend this person more highly."

"I recommend this person with no qualifications whatsoever."
4.22.2005 12:01am
sb (mail):
On the legal and geeky front, I've always inwardly snickered at the Violence Against Women Act. All those in favor of violence against women...
4.22.2005 12:20am
NickM (mail) (www):
One of the more famous sayings attributed to Yogi Berra:

Woman to Yogi: "You certainly look cool today."
Yogi in response: "Thanks ma'am. You don't look so hot yourself."

4.22.2005 2:03am
"Highway rest stop."

"I'm a pharmaceutical representative" sounds so much better than "I sell drugs."
4.22.2005 1:25pm
In a review of an academic paper:

"This paper fills a much-needed hole in the literature."
4.22.2005 7:28pm
Bill Clinton (mail):
Lawyers - you gotta love 'em!

"Ex-Presidents can become President again (think Grover Cleveland), and your ex-girlfriend could become your girlfriend again, too."

Ah, if only it were so! Especially about Monica
being President!
4.22.2005 9:19pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
My father married his sister. He later married his brother. He hasn't administered any other weddings, though.

Another self-antonym is "throwing an idea out", which might mean offering it up for discussion or getting rid of it.

Formal logic says that the statement "not A" implies "if A then B" regardless of B. A colleague of mine (a professor) when he had to write a recommendation for a student he held in low regard would write "We are not hiring in his field this year, but if we were, I would want to hire him."

Actually, that doesn't work. The idea was to find something literally true but misleading. The sentence he had is just false. The conditional needs to be a material conditional of formal logic, but this is a counterfactual (because of the subjunctive mood). It would have to be "We are not hiring this year, but if we are I want to hire him" if you want a real material conditional, but of course that doesn't work the same way. I don't think you can really pull this one off.
4.23.2005 2:30pm
Speedwell (mail):
geckobear writes: "Well, when I was 8 or so I was riding in the car ans saw a sign at the interection that read "Old Highway 64 does not stop". I pondered this for some time trying to figure out how to make a road that doesn't stop..."

Reminds me of when I was a kid, too, a little younger than that. There would be signs on the road that said "Do Not Pass," and I thought my parents were total scofflaws becuase they would go ahead and pass the signs right up.
4.23.2005 8:00pm