Well, we lost another great one on September 22nd. Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra died, 90 years young. An incredible catcher for the New York Yankees from 1946 to 1965, I remember him because my Grandad watched him and talked about him all the time. And supposedly one of my favorite cartoon characters, Yogi Bear, was derived from him. But one of the things I remember him for were his “Yogi-isms”, his wild and creative quotations he was known for. Did they make sense? Yes, in a Zen sort of way. Here are a few of his best:
“It's like deja-vu all over again.”
“The future ain't what it used to be.”
“If you don't know where you're going, you might end up some place else.”
"It ain't over till it's over.”
And one of my favorites: “You can observe a lot by watching.”
I don’t know whether we have any actors, comedians, athletes, or other folks in the public spotlights who engage in word play nowadays. Once upon a time we had folks like Victor Borge. One of his nicknames was “The Clown Prince of Denmark.” As a kid growing up in the 60s, there were these great variety shows, and Mr. Borge would come out on stage, seat himself at the piano and fasten himself to it with a seat belt. He would then discuss how one could use Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” as an egg timer. A classical pianist, he would perform some classical piece, then run off into something else such as “Happy Birthday to You.” One of the things I remember was his routine where he would tell a story and insert sound effects for the punctuation. He was also known for his “inflationary language,” where he would alter a story, incrementing any numbers in the story, or incrementing what even sounded like a number. For instance, “Once upon a time” becomes “Twice upon a time,” “forehead” becomes “fivehead,” etc.
We had other entertainers famous for their word play.
Archie Campbell, of Hee Haw fame, would tell the story of Cinderella, but he would sway the first letters of certain words: “RinderCella” instead of “CinderElla,” and “slopped her dripper” instead of “dropped her slipper.”
Nipsey Russell, was a comic who appeared, well, pretty much everywhere, including many game and variety shows. Famous for his poetry, many were composed by him on the fly:
What is the secret of eternal youth?
The answer is easily told;
All you gotta do if you wanna look young
Is hang out with people who are old.
George Carlin, who had wonderful observations, such as:
Where are the great pundits, and wits, and nitwits who show us the way now? Who teach us how flexible and comical our language is?
I had the good fortune of living in a time where we had Yogi Berras, Archie Campbells, and others. And I have to say I come by my love for word play honestly. My grandfather, a well-rounded man who would’ve finished the eighth grade if it hadn’t been for the “…woodpeckers eating the school down.” had plenty of his own expressions. His specialty was taking high-falutin’ words and tossing them in casual conversations and situations. When picking up an object sometimes, he would state, with elaborate flourish: Grasp it thusly betwixt the forefinger and the thumb.
Or when about to give a pre-dinner speech (translation: tell a tall one): I’m going to make an epistle now. I never knew what an epistle was, but it always sounded funny to me.
And then there were the little joke questions I still love to annoy people with:
Pete and Repete were sitting on a fence. Pete fell off. Who was left?
Pete and Repete were…
Just remember. Two half-wits make a twit. Wholly wit.
I don’t always toss words around randomly, but when I do it’s without meaning.
Keep punning, my friends.