Funny Is as Funny Does

About 30 years ago, I went into a shop in Manhattan and ordered two cups of black coffee — one of them decaffeinated. Before handing me the coffee, the Asian proprietor marked one cup with a large L.

I asked, “What’s the L for?”


In the mid-1960s, Jerry Della Femina earned a reputation as the bad boy of advertising. On his first day as creative supervisor at Ted Bates agency, there was a meeting about the Panasonic account. The mood was panic. If they didn’t come up with a campaign soon, jobs were on the line.

Smelling the fear in the room, Della Femina said, “I see an entire campaign built around a headline.” As everybody gathered around him, he said, “The headline is… ‘From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor.’”

In the ’70s, he created an ad for Isuzu Motors. It featured an American salesman who couldn’t pronounce Isuzu. His Japanese co-worker said, “That is OK. I can’t say Chevuray either.”

The FCC wanted to ban the ad because it was “offensive to Japanese people.”

Westerners find the switching of L and R humorous. But Japanese speakers don’t lallate. That is, they don’t confuse L and R. There is a sound in the Japanese alphabet somewhere between L and R.

English — using English letters — is a favorite design element in Japan and other East Asian countries. This results in mistranslations, sometimes called “Engrish,” that are often uproarious, or unprintable.

A restaurant sign showed a dish with the English translation, “A fat cow is a vegetable.” Perfect for vegetarian meals during the Nine Days.

One hotel sign perked me up. It featured “Unir Specialty Coffee” at the “Innsomnia Akasaka.”

A detour sign in Kyushi, Japan, reads: “Stop: Drive Sideways.” I could use that technique trying to park in Brooklyn.

On Language Log blog, Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature, directed me to an article titled, “Tired of bad English tarnishing its image, China has new translation guidelines for signs.”

The guidelines warn against such restaurant menu items as one reported in the People’s Daily: Roasted wheat gluten is sometimes translated on menus as “roasted husband.” Mair gave a detailed analysis of the mistranslation — complete with Chinese spelling (frankly, Greek to me). But the notion of “roasted husband” is enough to keep me out of Chinese restaurants.

(Digression: I was once at a business meeting held at a Chinese restaurant. I couldn’t eat anything, so I just sat there holding a glass of water. A waiter came over and handed me a menu. Before I could respond, the guy next to me looked up from his wonton soup and told the waiter, “S’vet dich gurnisht helfn.”)

Linguists have targeted racism in Engrish jokes. Ben Zimmer, the Wall St. Journal’s language columnist, wrote on Language Log, “Illustrations of fractured English, particularly from East Asian countries … tend to get tiresome — even when not explicitly racist, they nonetheless partake in a long xenophobic tradition of ridiculing the English usage of non-native speakers. Belittling the pidginized English of speakers from East Asia has an especially checkered past in American dialect humor.”

I try to avoid offending anybody. (And should I stray, at Hamodia, the Rabbi and the staff shall discomfort me.) But with trepidation (and no linguistic credentials), I humbly submit that humor depends on the intention. Funny is as funny does. Like fire, humor can burn or it can illuminate.

Leo Rosten defined humor as “the affectionate communication of insight. Humor depends on characters. It unfolds from a fondness for those it portrays. Humor is not hostile. It is not superior to its players. Unlike wit, it is not corrosive; unlike satire, it is not antiseptic; unlike slapstick, it is not ludicrous; unlike buffoonery, it is not banal. Humor is a compassionate account of human beings caught in the carnival and the tragedy of living.”

Rosten acknowledged that dialect is a species of its own. Dialect humor must be artfully dabbed, not dolloped. And Rosten was an artist. His Hyman Kaplan stories are tributes to the English language and the immigrants who struggle with it. In particular, “Jewish students [who] wander through bewildering gorges trying to arrest their habitual interchange of vowels — each of which they can easily enunciate yet treat as musical chairs.”

With relish, not ridicule, Rosten described Hyman Kaplan’s first speech in front of the class at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults. The “sobject” of the speech was “Prazidents fromm vunderful U.S.A. Foist, Judge Vashington, de fodder of his country.”

Kaplan saluted “Voodenrow Vilson, he made de voild safe for democrats.” They could use him today.

And, with a virtual drumroll, he concluded, “An’ lest, mine favorite prazident, a great human bean, a man mit de hot an’ soul of an angel: Abram Lincohen!”

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