December 03, 2003

Punctuation: the rest of the story

If you are very good, I will tell you the joke that gives the inspiration for the title of the humorous punctuation book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which Mark Liberman recently mentioned on Language Log. But you have to promise to be good. You also have to be over 13 or accompanied by an adult; the joke failed to receive a rating as suitable family entertainment because of strong language and extreme violence.

A giant panda goes into one of those expensive and pretentious restaurants serving French/Asian fusion cuisine and takes a table for one. The surprised waiter for that table explains unctuously that his name is Marcel, he will be your server tonight, and we 'ave a number of specials (he is French), etc., etc. The panda listens impassively to the list of $27 chili-pepper encrusted swordfish specials and so on, and then orders a delicately flavored dish of young bamboo tips and mixed greenery served with steamed jasmine rice. On finishing his meal, the panda gets up, reaches into his fur for a handgun, brings down the waiter with one shot, and calmly heads for the door.

The head waiter is near the door and exclaims in shock, "Oh, monsieur, what 'ave you done? You 'ave killed Marcel! Why 'ave you done zis, monsieur? You 'ad some problem? Ze service was not acceptable?"

The panda scowls at him and says, "I'm a fucking panda. Go look it up." He stalks out into the night.

The baffled staff huddle round the compact encyclopedic dictionary that they keep on the premises, and turning to Panda, giant, they read this:

Panda, giant. Large bear-like animal, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, with distinctive black and white markings, related to raccoon family. Rare; found only in bamboo forests of Tibet and western China. Eats shoots and leaves.

[(comment by Liberman:) Aha! I knew this joke -- though it's always a pleasure to hear an old, good joke well told -- but I failed to consider its implications. In retrospect, it's clear what "The Book of Bunny Suicides" has to do with punctuation: fur, strong language, pretentious French waiters, gunshots ... I'm still not clear what the connection between semicolons and "Crap Towns" is, though.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 3, 2003 11:47 AM