We take a break from doing posts which hint at what's coming next to present the first-ever SC blog post written specifically for the purpose of entering a contest. Specifically, the contest can be found here, or could when it was open (having closed one minute before this entry went up), and is in regard to the Sam and Max series of video games -- quite simply the best thing to happen to PCs in the last year. The only rule of the contest is to produce something creative relating to the first season of games (season is an appropriate term here; rather than releasing one big game that took 20-30 hours to finish, Telltale Games developed 6 short ones that each took 4-5 hours). While they expect most of their fans to produce video clips, drawings, or other typical fan art, that's not the SC style, and so we now present: "Holy Dog and Rabbity-Thing!: A Syntactic, Semantic, and Pragmatic Analysis of Expressions of Surprise in Sam and Max, Season One".
In the 1960s, long before it could be terrorized by a giant robotic Abe Lincoln, the nation was introduced to expressions of surprise of the form "Holy [Noun Phrase]" via the Batman television series. Batman's sidekick Robin would utter these expressions, followed by an announcement of something terribly obvious to the viewer (technically speaking, "Holy Toledo!" preceded the series, as demonstrated by the Greater Toledo Vistors' Bureau, and was as humorous as anything Robin said, as the notion of Toledo being holy could only be a joke). In this essay, we analyze expressions of surprise across Season One of Sam and Max, in order to demonstrate how Sam's humor transcends that of the Batman series which inspired these expressions. Both in order to control for context, and because the author did not have the foresight to prepare transcripts of the entire series before this contest was announced, we will examine expressions of surprise that occur in the opening dialogue of each episode, during the sequences where Sam and Max receive their assignments through phone calls with the faceless commissioner.
Syntax: Expressions of surprise in the original Batman series always took the form "Holy [Noun Phrase]!" One website providing quotes from the series lists 356 examples (and warns that it may not be an exhaustive listing), including "Holy jelly molds," "Holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods," and "Holy contributing to the delinquency of minors!" These expressions would often be followed by some additional sentence to state the obvious; for example, "Holy Alps! I'd better brush up on my geography!" after realizing he doesn't know where Mount Gotham is.
In contrast, Sam's expressions of surprise do not generally include an explicit "holy" (although he does utter "holy cow" in Episode 3), and generally take the form of a complex noun phrase consisting of a name followed by a locative prepositional phrase. These phrases became progressively more complex over the duration of the series. Whereas Episode 1 featured the simple "Jiminy Christmas in a padlocked sweatbox" and "Great gouts of steaming magma on a beeline for the orphanage!" (both as part of the same phone call sequence), Episode 4 stepped up to the very complex (and highly alliterative) "Sweet suffering Saint Sebastian on the Sousaphone in a short story by Susan Sontag!". While both Sam and Robin clearly make use of a grammatical template that provides a repeatable underlying structure for their utterances, Sam's syntactic creativity clearly exceeds that of Robin.
Semantics: While Robin shamelessly attempted to curry favor with future linguists studying his work, uttering the phrase "holy semantics" in one episode, he ruined his credibility by using it to describe a conversation that had just taken place regarding an issue of phonetics. Otherwise, Robin's semantics are largely uninteresting, as his statements usually simply reference something in the immediate visual context of the show. By contrast, Sam makes repeated references to objects without clear meanings, which force the gamer to stretch his imagination. For example, in Episode 2, he states "Sweet mother of double jeopardy backstroking in butterscotch!" which is suggestive of phrases used to refer to the Virgin Mary, as well as the legal concept of double jeopardy (legal concepts being something that a freelance policeman would be at least marginally acquainted with). It is not actually clear what the mother of double jeopardy would look like, though, nor how she gave birth to double jeopardy, nor what she would be doing in a pool of butterscotch. Sam's semantics impose demands on the gamer which again make for a more rewarding experience than Robin's statements.
Pragmatics: Philosopher Paul Grice defined four maxims for communicative effectiveness, which we may summarize as "be truthful", "make your statements as informative as necessary, no more or less", "be relevant", and "be clear". Robin's statements are usually clear, at least marginally relevant, not obviously false, but never informative. Sam is willing to go to greater lengths for his humor. Episode 3's statement of "Holy cap-wearing catfish flopping a crime beat!" is not obviously true (there are not likely to be any cap-wearing catfish), informative (not related to any facts of the case), relevant (ditto) or clear (huh?). In fact, Episode 6's statement, "By the Greek goddess Selene in a chariot with dual overhead cams and "Silver Foxx" mudflaps!" references a moon goddess, which is the only time any of his statements obey even one of the Gricean maxims. While faithfulness to these rules makes for productive conversations, it makes for lousy humor, and thus we see that Sam once again outworks Robin in the pursuit of humor.
In conclusion, in every dimension of linguistic analysis we might bring to expressions of surprise, Sam is just flat-out funnier than his predecessor, Robin. Also, Max threatened to shoot me if I didn't reach that conclusion.