Nerd Humor, and other Untranslatable Things

I wore this t-shirt yesterday in honor of NASA’s historic fly-by of our favorite dwarf planet. Something which I most likely would have missed in the weekly news over here if it weren’t for my super smart, scientifically-minded, space-news-following husband. I’m giving it a good try, though. Lately we’ve been settling down in the evenings for our second viewing of last year’s DVD purchase, Cosmos with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Despite watching an entertaining host and a highly-produced extravaganza of color and special effects, complete with cartoon demonstrations for the imaginatively challenged, not to mention having learned some of these things in school once upon a time… I remain utterly, hopelessly lost. The music and graphics oddly put me in the mood to visit Epcot Center, make me hungry for funnel cake, and then put me right to sleep. This science stuff might as well be fiction to me.

Not to say I’m not a nerd; I totally am. Just a capital-memorizing, building-databases-in-my-spare-time kind of a nerd, not a nerd with, you know, the slightest ability to understand algebra or astrophysics. Yet even I can find this t-shirt funny.

You know how they say jokes don’t translate? Yeahhhhhh.

So I’m wearing this t-shirt while teaching my noon English class yesterday when the script we’re following – Harrap’s Apprendre Anglais by Michel Thomas – explains that many French adjectives ending in -ique are the same in English except they end with -ical. Identique = identical. Pratique = practical. Logique = logical. The students seem very excited about this, and start filling the board with other examples. Chimique = chemical. Electrique = electrical. Astronomique = astronomical.

When we came upon this last example, astronomical, one of the guys in class shouted out, “like the moon!” Having just brushed up on this subject via our nightly Cosmos viewing, I could confidently add, “Yes, and the sun, all the stars, and the planets too.” At that moment I remembered the t-shirt I was wearing. “Ah look, here’s Pluto!” Several students chimed in “yes, yes!” and could describe that Pluto was the last planet, er, once was, anyway, in our solar system. One or two even knew that we were in the middle of a mission involving Pluto. (My surprise may sound demeaning, but remember most of these folks never had much formal education. Instead, they rival me in terms of planetary knowledge.)

So the next logical step in this little lesson is to read my t-shirt and get in on the joke, right? Woo hoo, let’s build some cross-cultural bridges here! This will be fun! Totally relevant English on-demand!

The language is pretty easy, as you can see; it didn’t take them long to read and understand the words. “Either” was a new word for some of them, so we took a little detour to discuss it and its partner “neither,” but soon everyone was on board with the language. Yet no one was laughing. In fact, they were avoiding eye contact. And literally sinking in their chairs. The more I tried to explain the joke, the more they slouched and sunk. The ones closest to me actually turned their backs. Everyone understood it, but no one thought it was funny. I was the only one laughing, trying to stay committed to the joke like a good comedian should. “Ha ha! Get it? I’m not a planet either… you see, Pluto is sad…” Crickets. These guys were too polite to boo, but they definitely wanted me to either change the subject or get off the stage.

You’d think after five years doing this, I would have some insight into why this joke was such a terrible, terrible, fail. But I don’t. It’s possible they don’t understand why on earth we would project feelings, like sadness, onto something inanimate, like a planet. (Like their previous confusion with a thinking, talking, and grandmother-eating big bad wolf…) This is a new group, though, and we haven’t yet moved beyond the present tense. So I don’t know if explaining personification-as-literary-metaphor is a good idea at this juncture.

Or maybe it’s weird and inappropriate to wear a t-shirt for the purpose of telling jokes. Around here, t-shirts are fine for elaborate political or religious messages, but come to think of it, we’ve never once seen a joke prêt-à-porter. Except, of course, someone wearing a second-hand shirt without realizing what it says, like that time we saw a young man walking down the street in a pink shirt that announced him “Princess.”

Or the problem could be the punchline itself. They might be thinking, “Duh. Of course people aren’t planets. Why would you even make that ridiculous comparison?” In fact, the more I think about it… this joke really only makes sense to a group of people who would have enough hubris, enough narcissism, enough of an over-inflated ego, that they would think it’s funny to point out that they’re not, actually, so awesome as to also be a planet.

All right, so it’s a dumb joke. But it will probably always make me laugh a little bit. Maybe even more so after all this.

Today I wore another ridiculous t-shirt, but made sure it was wordless. Cause I’m not even going to try to explain this one:

comma comma comma... oh forget it

comma comma comma… oh forget it


  1. … nerdy part of your “post” is funny … sparked my interest in Pluto and the discoverer who hales from the great state of Kansas!


  2. Great story! And only folks who listened to pop music in 80’s would get the other t-shirt! Karma, karma, karma, karma….fill in the blank. Now I have the song running through my head and probably my dreams tonight. Thanks Jen!

    Liked by 1 person

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