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139 Cunning Linguistics The Semantics of Word Play in South Park Michael Percillier “Oh my God, they killed Kenny! You bastards!” This dialogue is without a doubt the most iconic catchphrase of the American animated sitcom South Park, which has aired on the Comedy Central television network since 1997.1 Created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the show follows the adventures of four foul-mouthed schoolboys living in the quiet mountain town of South Park, Colorado. The core group of characters consists of Stan Marsh, who represents the average American kid; Kyle Broflovski, the only Jewish kid in town; Kenny McCormick, who is from a poor family and dies on a regular basis; and Eric Cartman, who is obese, racist, anti-Semitic, and greedy but uncannily resourceful. Further characters deserve to be introduced because they appear in the passages discussed below. Leopold “Butters” Stotch, a classmate of the central characters, is a cheerful but naïve boy, characteristics that are often exploited by Eric Cartman. Tweek is a paranoid, anxious, and hyperactive classmate of the main characters. He is the son of the town’s coffee shop owners, who attribute his mental state to ADHD and give him coffee to “calm him down.” Herbert Garrison is the boys’ schoolteacher. In the course of the show, he undergoes a range of identity crises, starting out 1. South Park episodes can be viewed legally and free of charge at the creators’ website South Park Studios, Users from outside the United States may be redirected to a local version of the website. 140 | Michael Percillier as a gay-bashing homosexual in denial who then embraces his sexuality, subsequently becomes a woman (Janet Garrison) by means of gender reassignment surgery, then becomes a lesbian, and finally completes the “full cycle” by having renewed surgery in order to become a man again. The show is notorious for its crude and irreverent humor, as well as for its tendency to generate controversy by frequently addressing thorny or even taboo issues and ridiculing both sides of the debate. In addition to the surreal, shocking, and satirical brand of humor characteristic of the show, South Park also features more sophisticated comical elements, some of which are based on language play. While an analysis of linguistic humor in South Park would require touching on a variety of linguistic disciplines, such as word formation or sociolinguistics, this chapter focuses on the field of semantics and discusses central notions of the discipline by analyzing dialogues and plot elements from the show, ranging from short puns to linguistic phenomena pivotal to the plot of an episode. Lexical Ambiguity Lexical ambiguity refers to lexemes (or lexical words) sharing a common linguistic form but having distinct semantic content (or meaning). Mainly owing to its potential for puns, lexical ambiguity features in various episodes and is a staple of South Park comedy. Four passages from the series in which lexical ambiguity plays a central role are presented below. Different types of lexical ambiguity will be introduced to make a semantic analysis of the passages possible. Homonymy In “Fun with Veal,”2 the boys save weakened baby cows, that is, calves, from a local cattle farm. Because the animals were kept in chains, their muscles are not developed enough to allow them to run away. The boys therefore hide the calves in Stan’s house. They hope to enable the animals to walk free by using a device that Butters claims “makes baby cows strong again.” 2. All episodes featured in this chapter were written by Trey Parker.   Cunning Linguistics | 141 Example 1: Stan: Butters! Did you bring it? Butters: I sure did. We’ll have those poor baby cows in shape in no time! Kyle: All right! Butters: (reads the box) Suzanne Somers’ Calf Exerciser. Stan: What? Butters: (reads the box) Makes your calves stronger in just two days. Kyle: Oh, Goddamn it! That’s your plan? In example 1, the boys are with the rescued and weakened calves and waiting for Butters, who has said he has something at his house that “makes baby cows strong again.” Kyle is understandably puzzled that Butters should have such a device at home. When Butters finally arrives and presents them with “Suzanne Somers’ Calf Exerciser” that “[m]akes your calves stronger in just two days,” the other boys are duly disappointed. Butters’s confusion is owing to a phenomenon called homonymy, which refers to multiple words with different meanings that happen to...


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