Thursday, June 19, 2008


A guest post from Teju Cole

In the shower yesterday morning, I found myself thinking about hyperbole.
The day before, in a bookshop, I had seen a book about Chuck Norris. It
had been printed on the basis of the internet phenomenon of
exaggerated statements about that actor. You might know what I’m
talking about: “There is no 'ctrl' button on Chuck Norris's
computer. Chuck Norris is always in control” or “Chuck Norris
destroyed the periodic table, because he only recognizes the
element of surprise.”

The conceit of these hyperbolic statements, of course, is that Chuck
Norris is such a tough guy that normal rules don’t apply to him.
“Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.” The game is to come up
with wilder and wilder statements that mention the name Chuck
Norris. “Chuck Norris counted to infinity. Twice.”

In any case, these are adynata invented for the sake of humor.
Adynata—the singular is “adynaton”—are figures of speech taken to
such extremes that they become impossible. We’re familiar with
adynata in the form of biblical sayings like, “it is easier for a
camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to
enter the kingdom of God.”

But what I thought about, yesterday, as I stood wasting water in the
shower, wasn’t so much about the kingdom of heaven as it was about
the way we occupied so many of our hours when I was in school in
Lagos in the 80s. We had “wording” or “you mess” jokes, “mess”
being, as you’re probably aware, Nigerian pidgin for “fart.”

“You mess, akara wear coat,” was one classic. Another was, “You
mess, all the fish wey dey for river Naija say, ‘ARE WE SAFE?’” The
pleasures of this ribaldry was partly in the rigor of the form,
partly the performance of the person telling the joke. “You
mess”—to which the clever boy or girl had to supply a suitable
zinger of a conclusion—“garri grow bia-bia.” You remember these,
don't you?

And, as the hot water ran and my skin began to shrivel just a bit, I
began to think, too, of the African-American tradition of “yo momma”
jokes, which also depend on the adynaton effect for their
effectiveness. “Yo momma so fat, when she was in school, she sat
next to everybody.” “Oh yeah? Well if ugliness was a brick, yo
momma would be a housing project.” The wonder of it is that - at
least in the case of both the “you mess” jokes and their
transatlantic “yo momma” cousins - the form is so tight,
evolving out of a call and response performance. The circle of boys
(it was usually boys), the improvised joke or revised classic, the
collapse of the group into hilarity and, hopefully, the “dissed”
party mustering up a fitting response.

“Yo momma so hairy, Bigfoot be taking her picture.” “Aight, you know
what? Let’s get off mommas. Cause I just got off yours.” Cue mass

Finally, I turned the shower off, and, as I stepped onto the mat, I
suddenly remembered another one, lines that hadn’t crossed my
mental screen in twenty years: “you mess, five agbalumo form

And suddenly, I was laughing so hard I had to hold my sides.

Yeah, you had to be there.


Anonymous,  6:45 pm  

i dont even know what that means but i just finished laughing hysterically. with tears in my eyes, and i'm still laughing as i type...'agbalumo form voltron".
ha ha. Teju Cole, you gots you a fan club!

Sandrine 7:09 pm  

Yo mama so short you can see her feet on her drivers license.
Thanks Jeremy.It's always nice to read Teju.Can't wait for the next book.


onydchic 7:45 pm  

'You mess' jokes always mystified me with their creativity and hilarity.

Thanks for the comic relief.

southern-tree,  8:11 pm  

What a laugh... I was institches even before I finished this one...

Kody 6:38 am  

The shower sure is a great place for reflection. I loved this post. I had never heard of 'you mess' jokes before now. One of the things I missed out on, not growing up in Nigeria.

My favourite yo momma joke:

Yo momma is so ugly - men, DAMNNNNNN look at you.

koko ewa,  12:48 am  

Thanks for the memories!

lamikayty 12:33 pm  

jwdmy teeth are out! you should 'do' a you mess book like the 'knock knock' booklets we had as children!

Kiibaati 6:22 pm  

"You mess, somebody get HIV"

I can't think of anything to surpass agbalumo forming Voltron!

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