Academic journal article Western Folklore

ARCHER TAYLOR MEMORIAL LECTURE 2006: Is the Pope Still Catholic? Historical Observations on Sarcastic Interrogatives

Academic journal article Western Folklore

ARCHER TAYLOR MEMORIAL LECTURE 2006: Is the Pope Still Catholic? Historical Observations on Sarcastic Interrogatives

Article excerpt

Ask a stupid question, and you'll get . . . a stupid question. In 1975, in the first issue of Midwestern Journal of Language and Folklore (later renamed Midwestern Folklore), I undertook to define and discuss a minor subcategory of proverbs in English that I designated "sarcastic interrogative affirmatives and negatives" (Doyle 1975). Two years later, a slightly expanded version of that article appeared in the maiden issue of the journal Maledicta (Doyle 1977).

I illustrated the genre with such examples, then current in oral tradition, as


Is the sky blue?

Does the world turn?

Is grass green?

Do cherries have pits?

Do birds fly?

Is a four-pound robin fat?

Do fish swim?

Do fish have bones?

Does a dog have fleas?

Does a cat have a climbing gear?

Does a cat have an ass?

Is a pig's ass pork?

Does a bear shit in the woods?

Does a fat baby poo?

Is the hole close to a doughnut?

Is the pope Catholic?

Does the pope know Latin?

Is Nixon guilty?

Is [Gerald] Ford a Boy Scout?


Do peanuts grow on trees?

Does a snake have knees?

Does a chicken have lips?

Do ducks wear zoris?

Does a cow meow?

Is billy graham catholic?

The designation sarcastic interrogatives achieved-and has retained-some currency among folklorists, as a result, probably, of Jan Brunvand's having adopted it in the second and subsequent editions of his widely-used textbook The Study of American Folklore (1978:54, 61).

Most of what I said about the genre in the 1970s still seems substantially right, including the definition:

Sarcastic interrogative affirmatives and negatives are stock questions with glaringly obvious yes or no answers. The function of each such question is to respond derisively to a prior query, itself calling for a yes or no answer, so as to suggest that the answer to the original query is too obvious to be worth proffering seriously. (Doyle 1977:77)

I went on to suggest that, like most proverbs, sarcastic interrogatives have a metaphorical aspect: just as proverbs in general tend to paraphrase one experience or situation in terms of another, "standard," one, implying an equivalency, so a sarcastic interrogative implies that the original question, the stimulus, is equivalent to the interrogative response in the excessive obviousness of its yes or no answer. I noted that, like other proverbial utterances, sarcastic interrogatives draw heavily from rural or natural phenomena for their imagery, but that many texts also refer to topical concerns (politics, religion, popular culture). I further maintained that although sarcastic interrogatives are deliberately impolite-in that they imply foolishness on the part of the one who has asked the prior question-they are most often intended jocularly rather than with overt hostility. I wish I had added that, in its content or substance, the response-question is irrelevant to the stimulus-question.

I might have formulated a more specific structural definition of the genre, though not much would have been gained thereby. Like true proverbs, as analyzed by Alan Dundes in 1975, a sarcastic interrogative consists of a topic and a comment-which is to say (in this case) a grammatical subject and predicate. The saying begins with either a copula or an auxiliary verb; questions starting with wh- words are ineligible, since they cannot anticipate a yes or no answer. If the saying begins with a copula, its grammatical structure would be:

copula + subject noun + predicate nominative or predicate adjective

"Is the pope Catholic?"

The nouns or adjectives may have modifiers. If the saying begins with an auxiliary verb, its grammatical structure is:

auxiliary + subject noun + main verb +/- object

"Do fish swim?"

The nouns or verbs may have modifiers. …

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