January 09, 2008

That would be in the modal auxiliary, Bob

[What follows is a guest post by Larry Horn. It refers to a presentation at the recent LSA meeting by Elisa Sneed German and various others, including Gregory Ward, entitled "The effect of semantic modality on the assessment of speaker certainty".]

Gregory Ward's LSA presentation last Thursday afternoon prompted some discussion afterward over baby octopus and salt and pepper shrimp during our dinner that night in Chinatown. I was chiding Gregory for not mentioning the most famous exemplar of the "that would be ..." construction, the contestant's fabled response (below) on The Newlywed Game. But a little post-hoc research raises the question of why this response never actually occurred, and why so many people think it did.

If you search on {"That would be in the butt"}, Google returns 146,000 raw hits, most of them citing the full utterance on The Newlywed Game (in response to "What was the strangest place you and your spouse made whoopee?") as "That would be in the butt, Bob", generally attributed to the wife. But if you read the first hit (http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/newlywed.asp), you'll find that alas, the story appears (at first blush) to be apocryphal or urban-legendary, as the eponymous Bob Eubanks conceded (although he claimed to have considered entitling his autobiography That Would Be In the Book). But then, when you read on, you find that a tape showing a variant of the response *did* later surface (from a 1977 episode of the show). You can sort of hear and/or see the relevant exchange by clicking on the links provided by snopes, although the crucial sequence is available only by inference.

What's especially interesting is that the original version was *not* of the "That would be..." form, but "Is it [in the ass]?" Yet the urban legend embellishment does provide the "That would be..." preamble, and is really much funnier because of it. It would interesting to try to explain why. (The urban legend version also depicts the contestant as African-American, which Olga in the relevant clip clearly was not. But the embellishment in this case is more of a research question for sociologists than for linguists.)

At the very least, there's something to the fact that we somehow prefer to remember it that way. We remember Richard M. Nixon, after his defeat in the gubernatorial race to Pat Brown in 1962, promising "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore", thereby setting the model for the dissociative third person so famously practiced by his political mentee Bob Dole; but tapes of his speech show that what he actually said was "You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore". The Dickless (and present-tense) version was altered in our collective memory to conform to the general tendency of politicians and athletes referring to themselves in the form of their name by which they're generally known (that's why they're Bobdolisms, rather than Dolisms or RobertDolisms; cf. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004762.html for relevant discussion.

"That would be in the butt, Bob" is a similar collective edit, although it still remains to explain why the edited version makes for a funnier story.

[Guest post by Larry Horn]

[Update -- John Caldwell writes:

I believe that the difference lies in the delivery of the answer. The addition of "That would be..." shows a certain haughty self-assurance that the answer is correct- and to see it attached to something so risqué as "in the butt" makes it even more amusing. Some time ago I saw a less-censored clip from the 1977 episode, viewable here. It's clear from this video that the contestant is much more reticent to answer. While it is still a funny clip, I believe it's much more amusing to imagine a confident answer delivered with bravado.

And Larry Horn responds:

That does seem to be the most plausible factor; "haughty self-assurance" is a good way to put it. Thanks *very* much for the crystal clear YouTube clip, which I had looked for without success before posting. It does raise the question of how Bob Eubanks was later to deny that the exchange ever occurred...


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 9, 2008 11:14 AM