Lamb Chop Suey?

by F.

If I’ve noticed it, I’m sure it’s a trend that has peaked, but I seem to see more and more band names and trademarks that are like this:

  1. Lamb Chop Suey
  2. Ranier Maria Theresa
  3. String Cheese Theory
  4. Out House Party
  5. Birth Day Tripper

The same thing can be done with a longer phrase, as Woody Allen did when naming one of his movies:

  • A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy

Other possibilities:

  1. The Empire Strikes Black
  2. Shindler’s Lisp
  3. Runaway Jury Rigged

I’m mixing and matching patterns, as you may have noticed. With Lamb Chop Suey, for instance, Lamb Chop is a phrase and Chop Suey is a phrase and they overlap. With The Empire Strikes Black, there is no overlap: there’s substitution. Ditto for A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

In both cases, though, they work the same. We expect one thing (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) but get something else (Sex Comedy). With Lamb Chop we don’t expect Chop to start another phrase; we expect something like was a puppet (if you are old enough to remember Sherry Lewis) or fell on the floor: “The lamb chop fell on the floor! Get it before the cat does.”

Natural language researchers—at least the ones I’ve known—talk a lot about n-grams. Each n-gram comprises n words. So, a bi-gram is two words, such as “big dog,” a tri-gram is three words, such as “big dog poop” and so on. What makes it a “gram” is this: an n-gram model predicts how likely the next word is given the previous n words. Think of it as a tree diagram, moving from left to right. The root of the tree is the n-gram. The branches are paths to other words, some more, some less likely to occur.

For instance, if I say “broom” the word “stick” may be fairly likely to show up. Let’s say the chance is 0.8. Same with “handle.” Let’s say the chance is 0.79. I’m making these numbers up: I don’t know the probabilities. That’s why natural language researchers do statistical analyses on vast amounts of natural language data. They call these “corpora,” and they are huge collections of text— newspaper articles, books, web pages, whatever.

Natural language researchers figure out these probabilities and then use them to predict, given a word W, what the next word will be. So when you are using the voice recognition system to move money from checking to savings at your bank, the voice recognition system hears “checking” and knows the likelihood that various words will show up next. “Account” is pretty likely. “My fly” isn’t.

And now back to Lamb Chop Suey. The little frisson you (or at least I) get when hearing that phrase or seeing it written comes from, I think, surprise followed by insight. My brain is perhaps doing something like the n-gram thing, in this case with a bi-gram (an n-gram with two words). When my expectations are confounded, I am surprised momentarily, but then I get it—Chop Suey! And that’s fun. That’s sometimes called “incongruity resolution” humor (as opposed to “nonsense humor”). Nonsense humor is something like this (imagine two people talking):

“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“What chicken?”

Monty Python is canonical nonsense humor; one liners, puns, and “traditional” jokes are canonical incongruity humor (“So a guy walks into a bar with a frog on his head. The bartender asks, ‘What happened?’ And the frog says, ‘I don’t know. It started out as a wart'”).

What seems—at least to me—new about phrases like Ranier Maria Theresa (the “correct” completion is Ranier Maria Rilke, the German poet) is that they are, in essence, a traditional joke compressed into a tiny package. A three word joke? Sure: String Cheese Theory. I know: you’re not exactly rolling on the floor. But the logic of it is the same, as far as I can see.

And now, more:

  1. Dairy Queen of Sheba
  2. Gross Weight Watchers
  3. Dog Pile Driver
  4. Moby Dick Wad
  5. Tummy Tuck-and-Roll
  6. Sour Dough Nut
  7. Lemon Bar Fly
  8. Gas Cap Gun
  9. Ferret Face-off (and, finally)
  10. Flap Jack-in-the-Box

Update: rereading this post, I now see I put “Lamp Chop” instead of “Lamb Chop,” which probably made this one considerably less coherent than the others. I tend to do that: I’ll put a “p” instead of a “b” because the former is a flipped version of the latter. I also tend to put “6” for “G” and “/” for “l.” Oh well.