Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When a joke falls flat

Last week in class I was talking about comments: "In our programming language, a comment must be preceded by a double semi-columncolon." Then the mathematical meaning of those words struck me and I added: "But beware that it is not the same as a columncolon." I was disappointed that my wit earned me no laughs. Why not? I thought it was funny! But perhaps the students were too busy listening to the content of what I was saying to pay attention to the actual words.

So, this week, I decided to try again. I reminded them: "Recall that a comment must be preceded by a double semi-columncolon. But beware! A double semi-columncolon is not the same as a columncolon!" I spoke slowly, carefully articulating the words and emphasizing the "double semi-columncolon". Still no reaction. -- The students must have thought that the reason why I was speaking with such emphasis was because I was saying something particularly important about the programming language. Instead of getting some chuckles, I then saw one of the TAs speak up: "Actually, in this course we ask you to use two semi-columnscolon, but technically, even if you use a single one it is already parsed as a comment." I answered lamely: "Oh. I didn't know. I never tried putting a single semi-columncolon!" and moved on to the next topic of the lecture.

Making new jokes requires real skill! And identifying the word "double" with the number 2 and the word "semi" with the number 1/2 might be more natural in French than it is in English. Perhaps it is better than I stay away from jokes that involve the English language. There are some nuances that I will never acquire, no matter how many years I spend speaking English. Language jokes are for native speakers only!


  1. It's also a "colon" and "semicolon", which opens up for anatomical jokes.

  2. I would have chuckled, but I think it requires a certain sense of humor that your students may or may not have. A pun based on the double-/semi- construction is perfectly reasonable in English.

  3. In college, I took some classes from a fairly well-known professor of government on political philosophy. They were electives I was taking for fun, so I was taking them pass-fail. He often said things that made me burst out laughing during lecture, and I'd look around and be the only one. His sense of humor was certainly subtle and dry, but I never could figure out if other students didn't get it, or they were just much more serious in a class they were getting graded in, and perhaps where they wanted to make a good impression on the professor.

    That being said, Claire, it's a pretty weak joke. :)

  4. Ah, well, maybe it's weak, but it's still pretty good for me. I never do puns, so I was proud of having come up with one just for once.

    Faculty meetings is the place for puns. Some of my colleagues are amazing!


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