When allusions fail

I recently posted about how cartoons depend so much on shared knowledge for their humor. But the increasingly fragmented nature of our information sources means that we can no longer take anything for granted. I recall a colleague of mine who had been teaching English for a long time saying that he could no longer depend upon his students having a shared background anymore that he could build upon. One positive reason for this lack of commonality is that the student bodies are now more diverse and the different backgrounds can add richness to the classroom experience.

But it is not only professors who have such problems. I recall some international students telling me that very often the professor would tell a joke in class and the other students would laugh but they had no idea what was so funny. But they would laugh politely, just so as not to draw attention to themselves.

This lack of a common experience happens more frequently when one is talking to people of different generations or from different cultural backgrounds but not exclusively so. Much of our conversations with others also depend on it, and even when we think something is so well known that it can be taken for granted, you can still be surprised. Recently I was chatting with some old friends of my own generation who are also from Sri Lanka about how people here sometimes found our names hard to pronounce. Chinese students, for example, sometimes use an Americanized name just to avoid the endless hassle to trying to teach people how to say their actual names.

In the course of the discussion, I mentioned how I read someone saying that in cafes and other places where you have to give a name so that they can call you when your order is ready, he gives the name Spartacus so that he can stand up and shout out in response “I am Spartacus!” I thought that was funny. My friends smiled but I could see that they were a little baffled by my allusion and, upon questioning, I found that they were not aware of that famous scene from that famous film Spartacus. (I linked to it a few months ago.) I assumed that everyone knew it, especially those of my generation. But they did not.

Giving a simple name at such places may not always solve the problem either.

(Pearls Before Swine)


  1. says

    I’ve had better luck with “I’m Brian, and so’s me wife” which is obviously a reference to Spartacus but it’s one that younger generations are somewhat more likely to be familiar with.

  2. bugfolder says

    The problem with using “Spartacus” as your coffee name is that everyone in the coffee shop will also claim to be Spartacus.

  3. seachange says

    You can quote Jesus to Mormons, and they will suppose that you are prophesying yourself.

    I have found anyone younger than forty does not get Shakespeare quotations even the most famous ones, nor can they tell what painting you are referring to even if you use the english name and the dead artist just sold something for millions.

  4. Katydid says

    A decade or so ago, I had a kid in archery, which was a sport a lot of homeschoolers in my county also took part in. Over the course of the couple of years the kid was in the sport, I kept my mouth shut and ears opened when the homeschool mothers around me talked. Among other gems I learned was that there is absolutely no value in “common knowledge” and their kids wouldn’t be (for example) learning about Shakespeare because the mommies didn’t think Shakespeare was important. Likewise, no child of theirs would ever learn algebra or chemistry or the Bill of Rights, which was old and therefore irrelevant to current life. Now I’m wondering if it’s not just the homeschool set, but a generality of regular life.

  5. Katydid says

    When my cellphone rings, I get a popup of a telephone handset. The first time I saw it, it was immediately obvious to me because I grew up in a home with a traditional landline with a traditional handset. I was wondering the other day when we’ll pass the point where people will have no idea what that handset is.

  6. flex says

    Ten years ago my boss at the time mentioned that he had to explain to his son that the SAVE icon was a picture of a 3.5″ floppy disk.

    Then he had to explain what a floppy disk was, his son had never seen one.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Katydid @#5,

    It is interesting that those parents did not want their children to spend time learning Shakespeare or algebra or chemistry but thought devoting effort to archery was worth it. I can see doing archery for fun but it is hardly an essential life skill. I wonder if that was because the parents did not like or know Shakespeare and algebra and chemistry themselves and devaluing them let them off the hook to teach t.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    Eric Douglas was a bad standup comedian, but he caused the greatest heckle in history.

    Dying on his arse, he got angry with the rowdy crowd. “You can’t treat me like this” he said. “I’m kirk douglas’s son”.
    “NO,” cried a genius in the crowd, standing up, “*I* am kirk douglas’s son!”
    He had to leave the stage.

  9. billseymour says

    flex @7:  you beat me to it.  (Rant:  I really hate all those icons.  All they do is take up space.  I’m a big boy and I can read now.)

    Years ago…I think it was in Pittsburgh, or maybe it was in Seattle…I often went to a coffee shop called Morningtown where I’d give my name as Morgan, an allusion to Joni Mitchell’s “Morning Morgantown”.

  10. Matt G says

    My partner’s name is derived from an Arabic name. It is impossible to spell and even harder to pronounce, so we order takeout for Matt even if she is picking it up.

  11. says


    I think Rev Matt is saying that the Life of Brian line is a reference to Spartacus, so that when you directly reference Life of Brian by saying, “I’m Brian, and so’s my wife,” you are indirectly referencing Spartacus.

    I find that persuasive. It really is impossible not to see the crowd yelling, “I’m Brian” as anything but a reference to Spartacus if you know both movies (and the order in which they came out).

  12. Allison says

    I couldn’t help wondering if the homeschooling families in question were fundamentalist Christian. There is a whole subculture of fundamentalist Christians who homeschool their children because they want to completely control what they are exposed to and thus control their thinking. They don’t want their children to get “corrupted” by worldly ways. Basically, anything that isn’t biblical or doesn’t inculcate patriarchal ideas is excluded from their curricula.

    Also, it depends upon the state, but many states have minimum requirements for homeschooling curricula, generally that the children have to be taught the subjects that they would require in a public school. If they live in one of those states, it’s probably not legal to leave out algebra and Shakespeare. (One of the goals of education is to provide people with a certain degree of cultural competence.)

    Of course, in many cases (not just fundamentalists) not meeting those requirements is exactly the point of homeschooling. And states generally don’t have the resources to ferret out homeschooling families that choose to avoid contact with the State.

  13. Matt G says

    The Python boys are obviously highly intelligent and well read, in addition to being very imaginative. I don’t think the “I’m Brian” gag requires Spartacus as an antecedent, and I’ve never made that connection. It’s not a stretch to see that if Brian is being weleased, that one would claim to be Brian. Same goes for “so’s my wife,” which fits so perfectly with the many other gender-based gags (not to mention the cross-gender acting for which they are famous).

  14. mailliw says

    A friend of mine used the 1000 monkeys in front of 1000 typewriters as an example in class.

    First question from the students: “what’s a typewriter?”

  15. sonofrojblake says

    @Matt G, 15: it’s the very fact of the Pythons being so culturally literate that I can’t read the “no I’m Brian” scene any other way *but* a Spartacus reference. You don’t need to get the reference for it to be funny, any more than you need to know anything about philosophy to find their jokes about that funny. It’s just another layer of messing that adds to the appreciation of you do catch it. Pratchetts work is full of that stuff, too, as is Lewis Carroll’s, hence the popularity of annotations for their stuff.

  16. John Morales says


    I can’t read the “no I’m Brian” scene any other way *but* a Spartacus reference

    I certainly can.

    (In fact, it’s the very opposite of the Spartacus trope!)

  17. Katydid says

    @Allison; my state is one of the more strict states for homeschooling (I heard allllll about this from the homeschooling parents). Unlike other and nearby states where all you have to do is say you’re homeschooling and the state can’t come near you, in my state you have to prove your child is learning in one of two ways: either a yearly meeting with a board member where you present a portfolio of student learning (which many of the parents create the night before the meeting), or join a homeschooling group and present the portfolio to the group leader, who then sends out a letter to the board of ed certifying the child is making adequate yearly progress. Obviously, some groups are more diligent than others.

    The vast majority of the homeschoolers in my particular area fell into the “too lazy to care about education” mindset--one mother told me she’d always known she would homeschool because she hated getting up in the morning. But there were a cluster of families where the girls had skirts down to the floor and hair down to their knees (the boys always looked modern and were able to move around) who were religious fundamentalists and against “government schools” (but were totally for “government handouts” like food stamps and Section 8 housing vouchers because they used them). Then there were the unicorns who were homeschooling because their kids were ultra-bright and traditional schools just couldn’t accommodate them--the types of families whose kids were taking classes at the local college or online through MIT, Stanford, and Harvard.

    Why archery? It’s a “traditional” sport that attracts people who were certain we live in pre-Civil War times.

    Why reject shared cultural knowledge? Because they didn’t value it themselves, I suppose.

  18. mnb0 says

    @8 MS: “it is hardly an essential life skill”
    But being familiar with Shakespeare is? Peculiar. Perhaps that’s why Third World countries are so poor -- the kids overthere don’t get taught the English bard.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    The previous post here features a video flagged “Alas Smith and Jones”, which I think alludes to a short-lived early-70s tv western about a couple of picaresque outlaw(?) cowboys, “Alias Smith and Jones”.

    I gave up watching tv entirely about that time -- had I done so a little earlier, I’d’ve scratched my head now trying to fit that into “Alas, poor Yorick” or “Pigeons on the grass, alas” or some other lit’ry reference (as it is, most pop culture stuff from the last 40+ years sails far over my head). If educational standards really require “cultural competence”, we’ll have to mandate a whole lot of hardcore trivia.

  20. sonofrojblake says

    @John Morales, 18:
    “it’s the very opposite of the Spartacus trope!”

    Yes. The *precise* opposite. Which is what makes it a reference. Ffs.

  21. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake, point being, I can see it either way though you can’t.

    (“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”)

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