Source: Language at the Speed of Sight (1 ed. 2017), p. 21 Bottom.

And speaking of humor, here is John Cleese's favorite joke:

A grasshopper hops into a bar and onto a stool. The bartender says, "We've got a drink named after you." The grasshopper says, "What, Norman?"

The joke only succeeds if the reader assigns the appropriate intonation—a property of speech—to the punchline "What, Norman?" (roughly the same as in "Who, me?"). Punctuation provides helpful clues but does not fully specify the humor-intensive intonation. In written form the joke relies on the reader's ability to mentally supply this information. Thus a joke can be funny even if it is read silently rather than told by John Cleese. Successfully "hearing" the relevant intonation is part of the pleasure.

I don't understand this joke, probably as I'm confused how the bolded critical interrogative statement ought be intoned? 'Norman' is disyllabic, and 'me' is monosyllabic? So how can "What, Norman?" be (intoned) roughly the same as "Who, me?"

Edit after original time of posting: Only after user 'Mick''s comments, did I discover that 'grasshopper' is the name of a cocktail.

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    The grasshopper is surprised because he assumes that the drink is called "a Norman", when in fact it is called "a grasshopper", which is what the bartender meant.
    – Mick
    Nov 26, 2017 at 8:10
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    The joke is compounded because the grasshopper thinks that his name is too ordinary to be used for a cocktail drink. Hence his surprise.
    – Mick
    Nov 26, 2017 at 8:25
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    The grasshopper's name is Norman. I would punctuate What? Norman?? Your underlying point, that typographic and orthographic conventions are only imperfect representations of prosody is a valid one, but a native speaker would recognize from the structure of the reply that the grasshopper is speaking his own name, incredulously, and the native speaker would supply the intonation associated with questions marked by incredulity.
    – TimR
    Nov 26, 2017 at 13:11

2 Answers 2


I don't agree with this author's opinion as stated.  The written word doesn't have or need an intonation.  Intonation matters if we translate this written passage to speech, but text does not need to be translated to speech in order to be comprehensible. 

The joke only succeeds if the reader assigns appropriate semantics to the punchline.  Similar semantics can be carried by an entirely different set of words: 

A grasshopper walks into a bar and gets the bartender's attention.  The bartender asks "Hey, did you know that we have a drink named after you?"  The grasshopper replies "That's interesting.  I'd like to try it.  Give me a Norman." 

Performing surgery on humor is a risky undertaking.  It often leaves the patient severely weakened if not dead.  In this case, I think the humor has survived, even if the punchline carries a little less punch.  However, this version of the punchline employs a command (well, a request) rather than a question, which would be spoken with an entirely different intonation. 

In the original version, the joke fails if the reader mistakes "Norman" for the bartender's name.  My version doesn't afford the same mistake.  We could also eliminate that inappropriate ambiguity by paraphrasing the original as a more complete question: "You have a drink named Norman?" 

This distinction between "Norman" as a form of address and "Norman" as the heart of the question can be represented by a difference in intonation.  This author seems to mistake representation for identity.  Intonation is not strictly necessary to mark this distinction and it is certainly not the same thing as the distinction so marked, even though it is commonly used and commonly understood, and happens to be quite effective. 

Any version of this joke is likely to fail if the reader doesn't recognize "grasshopper" as the name of both a cocktail and a suborder of insect.  The bartender intends that "named after you" be interpreted as named after your kind, but the grasshopper infers that it means named after you as an individual.  The humor relies on subverting one obvious expectation with another, and the subversion is destined to fail if the first intended expectation is not obvious to the joke's audience. 

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    Nicely unpacked. Nov 29, 2017 at 11:02

I would intone it thus, down on "what" and with a sharp peak on "Nor":

What -- Norman?

I disagree that the intonation is key to the joke, though it certainly is part of the pleasure.

The joke works on multiple levels, including:

  1. The grasshopper doesn't know that there's a drink called a "grasshopper".

  2. The grasshopper doesn't realize that "Norman" is an unlikely name for a drink.

  3. The reader knows that grasshoppers are not named "Norman".

  4. "Norman" is simply a funny name (somewhat stuffy, outdated).

The intonation plays a part in the first two more than the second two.

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