My Favorite Zeugma:

Thanks to commenter Dan Simon, who reminded me of this zeugma, from the famous English radical (and hero to the American revolutionaries) John Wilkes. The Earl of Sandwich apparently exclaimed to Wilkes something like, "I don't know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox" (the "pox" referring to syphilis). Wilkes then replied,

That depends on whether I embrace your Lordship's principles or your mistress.

The quote is often attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, but the source I cite above is from 1839, when Disraeli was just beginning his political career; if the statement had indeed been from Disraeli rather than Wilkes, it seems unlikely that an 1839 source would label it as being Wilkes's.

11.18.2008 1:57pm
A. Zarkov (mail):

Don't you think we know that "the pox" meant syphilis?
11.18.2008 2:33pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
I think some of you do and some don't.
11.18.2008 2:34pm
alkali (mail):
Given the crowd that comments here, I think Prof. Volokh was exceedingly charitable in not assuming familiarity with that condition.
11.18.2008 2:37pm
Anderson (mail):
Definitely Wilkes.

I had thought it was the more elegant "your Lordship's principles or your Lordship's mistresses," but then, there's not going to be tape of the utterance.

Sandwich, of course, was the guy who was too inveterate a gambler to eat with both hands during a game, hence his namesake invention. His morals were as dubious as Wilkes implies.
11.18.2008 2:47pm
Jonathan David:
Another good reason that the residents of the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania named their beloved town in honor of John Wilkes.
11.18.2008 2:57pm
Mad Max (mail):
This rejoinder by Wilkes has unjustly overshadowed another incident when a government minister called Wilkes a "pernicious traitor," and Wilkes responded, "I know you are, but what am I?"
11.18.2008 2:59pm
Emily Latilla (mail):
This is a favorite story of George Smith's, who frequently told it at his lectures on American political history at Cato Institute courses. Though Smith neglected to mention it was a Zeugma.
11.18.2008 2:59pm

Given the crowd that comments here, I think Prof. Volokh was exceedingly charitable in not assuming familiarity with that condition.

So is that what this persistent itch is?
11.18.2008 3:31pm
A Law Dawg:
Given the crowd that comments here, I think Prof. Volokh was exceedingly charitable in not assuming familiarity with that condition.

Come now, it's libertarians, not libertines.
11.18.2008 3:53pm
Hard to top the English in quippery. (Perhaps non-English speakers do devastating retorts even better than the English, but I don't speak other languages, so won't know.) Is it a cultural thing, their educational background, the nature of their public fora (e.g., a parliamentary system with animated debate), or something else that prepares the English so well for verbal sparring? Or am I just giving the English collectively more than their due and us Americans less than ours? I don't imagine that bitchery has declined over the course of time, but has the quality of retorts diminished, with fewer unanswerable counterthrusts like Wilkes' and more resort to "f--- you" type replies?
11.18.2008 4:07pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
The Wilkes retort reminds me of this passage from John Kendrick Bang's "A House-boat on the Styx," in which Cicero, Dr. Johnson, and Shakespeare are discussing Hamlet.

"It was a good play, just the same," said Cicero.

"Very," put in Doctor Johnson. "It cured me of insomnia."

"Well, if you don't talk in your sleep, the play did a Christian service to the world,"

Not a zeugma, but still fun.
11.18.2008 4:12pm
Andrew S. (www):
I missed the original thread, but I'll jump in here. I see Flanders &Swann's Madeira, M'Dear received due mention (though nobody quoted my favorite of its three (!) zeugmata, "She lowered her standards by raising her glass, her courage, her eyes, and his hopes").

But I'll toss in a pop-culture one people seem to have missed, from David Bowie's Young Americans:

"She took his ring, took his babies,
It took him minutes, it took her nowhere,
Heaven knows, she'd have taken anything..."
11.18.2008 5:06pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
First, I rate that as the best one-line retort.

Second, in that time period, the 'pox' did not refer solely to syphilis. Smallpox also was called the 'pox.' However, the meaning in Wilkes' reply is clear.
11.18.2008 6:47pm
Sean Gleeson (mail):
Just today, I heard a country song in a tavern. Don't know the title or singer of the song, I'm afraid. But I caught this zeugmacious lyirc:

"I was pushing 30, and it was pushing back."
11.18.2008 7:48pm
Michael Drake (mail) (www):
Like I said before, Zeugma's require ointment.
11.18.2008 9:13pm
Vern Cassin (mail):
A recent Onion horoscope:

"In a tragic twist of fate, you'll be overwhelmed this week by both a sense of fear and a pack of wolves."
11.18.2008 9:57pm
Ronald V. Simmons (mail):
Zeugma Arbitration Needed, please help.

I've had a running argument with a friend for a number of years as to whether an exchange in the movie Blazing Saddles is a zeugma. The friend maintains that to be a zeugma, the usage must occur in one sentence. I say otherwise, Please advise.

Cleavon Little playing Sheriff Bart encounters an old friend while crossing a desert. The friend begins the conversation by expressing surprise to see him alive, saying: "They said you 'uz hung." Little puffs out his chest, grins and replies: "And they 'uz right!"

Is this a valid instance of a zeugma or not?

11.19.2008 2:54am
Ronald V. Simmons (mail):
Just to be clear. My conviction is that the intent to commit a zeugma is manifest in the above snippet and that fact in and of itself is sufficient to indict Little for same - and that that indictment should end in Little's conviction.

Figured that that way of posing the question would spark interest amongst the crowd gathered here. :)
11.19.2008 3:09am
John Burgess (mail) (www):
R.V. Simmons: I think that's simply a double entendre.

Neurodoc: French can be pretty cutting, filled with innuendo, puns, and I dare say zeugmas.
11.19.2008 11:18am
Crunchy Frog:
Don't know of it properly qualifies, but is pseudozeugmatic at least:

There were lines on the mirror
Lines on her face
She pretended not to notice
She was caught up in the race

Eagles - Life In The Fast Lane
11.19.2008 1:32pm
Peafsledecewet (mail) (www):
11.19.2008 1:49pm
Ronald V. Simmons (mail):
J Burgess, curiously that's what my friend argues. I always reply with two comments:

1) zeugma is ancient greek for double entendre (it actually means yoking as in yoking two oxen together)

2) I think the non-std usage is what is confusing you.

Suppose that I rewrote the exchange above as:

"The gentlemen of the town maintained that I had been hung and the ladies agreed saying that I most certainly was."

The meaning of hung is determined and modified by the words "had been" in the first instance and "was" in the second. The "had been" construct makes hung an intransitive verb, "was" makes it an adjective. This differs from the embrace (principles|mistress) example only in that changing the meaning of the word here also changes it from verb to adjective where the orginal example used it as a verb with two meanings.

Since the dialect being spoken in the movie sense doesn't have the same markings for that transition, they a) can state the same much more economically but b) have to rely on a knowing look to see the joke.
11.23.2008 4:55am