June 9, 2006

That great linguist, Groucho Marx, and other stories

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably familiar with a saying that illustrates some of the basic challenges of disambiguation:

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

But did you know who said it first? I didn’t until recently.

Turns out it was Groucho Marx.

Incidently, Roger Schank’s lesser-known next-generation follow-up was:

John saw Mary with another teacher. Mary saw John with another woman.

Think of the information encapsulated in that!

And surely you know of the early machine translation system that took a phrase from English to Russian and back and wound up transforming:

The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.


The vodka was good but the meat was rotten.

I think that story was true. But I’ll close with one that’s wholly aprocryphal, and not as well known in the linguistics community as the others are.

A research project produced a prototype of a speech-operated tactical advisor. Demo day came, and a General (with entourage) was ushered into a room with a tactical simulation. The engineers did a good job of rattling off situation reports, as officers might at an actual staff meeting. The project lead then gestured to the General that he should proceed. He cleared his throat:

“So, computer, which course of action do you recommend? Shall we maintain a defensive stance, undertake a frontal assault, or try a flanking maneuver.”

There was a pause, as tapes spun and things clacked and clattered. (This is an OLD apocryphal story.) After a while, a mechanical voice replied:


Aggravated by this logical but useless literalism, the General shouted “Yes, what??”

Immediately the computer replied:

“Yes, SIR!!


9 Responses to “That great linguist, Groucho Marx, and other stories”

  1. Text Technologies»Blog Archive » Procter & Gamble on text mining projects on August 2nd, 2006 10:23 pm

    […] Elsewhere in his talk, McFadden held forth in generalities about how to gain support from senior management for new technology, something of which there was too much at the Summit (he wasn’t the worst offender). And he completely endeared himself to me when he explicitly made the Groucho Marx citation. • • • […]

  2. Brett Newbold on October 6th, 2006 11:18 am

    Hi Curt,

    Remember me? I remember you.

    My favorite of these kind of linguistic twisters is:

    Polish police curb riots. Parse that one.


  3. Curt Monash on October 6th, 2006 6:31 pm

    Hi Brett! I gather you had a little trouble telling nouns from verbs?

    Yes, I think of you often, especially when I reflect sadly on the lack of success Oracle has had in search. The progress-to-potential ratio there has been pretty sad in the years since 8.1.5 or so.  What are you up to these days? The latest word was that you were running a bar in Colorado, which I stored in my “Might or might not be aprocryphal” file, in the subcategory “probably is incomplete even if true.”

    And back to the original topic: I saw the Groucho Marx quote pasted on a wall in the new TV show Studio 60.



  4. Andrew Clegg on January 16th, 2007 10:32 am


    I know this is a really old post, but I’m trying to nail down the genuine source of that alleged Groucho quote (for my PhD thesis no less). Everyone seems to think he said it, but no-one knows when or where. If you actually have a citation, could you mail it to me please?

    Many thanks,


  5. Curt Monash on January 17th, 2007 2:17 am

    Sorry. No clue. I knew that saying for almost 30 years before I found the Groucho attribution on the Web.

  6. DBMS2 — DataBase Management System Services»Blog Archive » The petabyte machine on May 29th, 2007 8:35 am

    […] Time flies. […]

  7. Brett Newbold on January 20th, 2009 8:03 pm

    Hi Curt,

    Just saw this. Yep, little slower nowadays.

    I did own/run a bar/restaurant in Cambridge, Idaho for a while. Very bad at retirement. I’m now the the COO at a very cool company doing linguistic/climate stuff, Cooler Inc. (climatecooler.com)

    Best to you and yours.

  8. The games of Watson | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on January 9th, 2014 3:58 pm

    […] language recognition humor Categories: Health care, IBM and DB2, Scientific research, Text  Subscribe to our complete […]

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