John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, August 21, 2009

Four words

After today’s earlier heaviosity, I offer a little contest for the weekend.

What is the funniest four-word message you can devise? A classic example is Robert Benchley’s cable to The New Yorker from Venice: “Streets flooded. Please advise.” (You can have a little leeway to establish a context.)


  1. "Sticks float. They wood."

    It's not an original, or even very funny, but it's the first thing that came to mind.

  2. From a 1/30/09 Paul West blog item comment -

    Breaking News! Water wet!

  3. To adapt two tropes at least as old as Mark Twain: "GROOM MISSING NO STORY", and "ARRIVED HELL SEND BLANKETS".

    This exchange of telegrams involves six words, but I think it's got the right spirit: "SEND FOOD" / "TIGHTEN BELT" / "SEND BELT".

    And, not funny but nevertheless famous in the biology world: "MONOTREMES VIVIPAROUS OVUM MEROBLASTIC" announcing the discovery that duck-billed platypuses really are egg-laying mammals.

  4. Logos, Ethos, Pathos, D'Artagnan

  5. Not broke -- unfix it.

  6. McIntyre fixed his carburetor

  7. Winky tinky ha-ha hut (Brazenly counting "ha-ha" as one word.)

  8. Debts ignored, newspapers profitable.

    Your banker loves you.

    I do; not now.

  9. Not an entry, but my favorite headline of all time:

    Foot heads arms body

  10. The jazz pianist Dave Frishberg's matchless song "Blizzard of Lies" lends itself to many variations on this theme: Let's have lunch soon. Luggage is checked through. We've got inflation licked. Get back to you. (You want more, go track down the song online.)

    One more four-worder that isn't funny, but seems appropriate in the light of many recent posts: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. (Those without the benefit of a strict Judeo-Christian education can consult the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament.)

  11. To quote the ballplayer Joaquin Andujar: "In one word, youneverknow."

  12. Fish hits wall. Damn.

    Broken vacuum: doesn't suck.

  13. On the final exam for a particularly troublesome college senior: "Grade: F. Enjoy McDonald's."

  14. David Belz
    Reminds me of the bet Hemingway took that he couldn't write a short story in six words. He won. His story? "For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn."

    Steve Sullivan
    George Bush is smart.

    Paul Algire
    codependency counseling, couples only

    Gene Fynes
    Aliens landing … why Cleveland??

    Paul Algire
    nymphomaniacs are f***ing everywhere

    Rob Smith
    Weekends are for beer.

    Robert Ofcrosskeys
    Strayer University degree programs

  15. I believe the Benchley telegram is actually "Streets full of water, please advise." I hope so, because it's about fourteen times funnier that way.