A BULL in the literary sense is any statement made ludicrous by its absurd logic. Coleridge defined the term this way: “A bull consists in a mental juxtaposition of incongruous ideas, with a sensation, but without the sense, of connection.” The term used most often is IRISH BULL because the Irish are supposed to have a propensity for absurd logic.
An example of an Irish bull is the proverb “It is better to be a coward for a minute than dead for the rest of your life.” Another is the Irish toast “May you never live to see your wife a widow.” And another proverb, “An Irishman would rather die than be buried outside of Ireland.”
Essayist Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) hailed from Dublin. When asked why the Irish uttered so many bulls, he replied, “It is the effect of climate, sir; if an Englishman were born in Ireland, he would make as many.” If an Englishman were born in Ireland, of course, he wouldn’t be an Englishman.
Sir Richard Steele
Another Irishman, essayist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), complained to Dr. Johnson, “Whenever I write anything the public makes a point to know nothing about it.” Were Steele and Goldsmith being stereotypical Irishmen or were they simply displaying a characteristic vein of Irish humor? The genuine Irish bull is delivered with such an air of innocence that it is difficult to tell if the speaker is serious or not.
Here are some other notorious Irish bulls:
One day a young Irishman told his uncle that he had begun college with plans to enter the church. The uncle replied, “I hope that I may live to hear you preach my funeral sermon.”
Said another Irishman once, “Talk about thin! Well, you’re thin, and I’m thin, but he’s as thin as the pair of us put together!”
Another time two Irishmen were walking along a road on a dark night when one fell into a ditch. The other called out, “Patrick! Patrick! Are you all right? If you’re dead please tell me.” A voice came back, “I’m not dead, William, but I’m knocked speechless.”
“I was going over Westminster Bridge the other day,” said an Irishman, “and I met Pat Hewins. ‘Hewins,’ says I, ‘how are you?’ ‘Pretty fair,’ says he, ‘thank you, Donnelly.’ ‘Donnelly!’ says I. ‘That’s not my name.’ ‘No more is Hewins mine,’ says he. So we looked at each other again, and sure enough it turned out to be neither of us.”
Robin O’Flaherty was asked if he understood French. “Yes,” he said, “if it’s spoke in Irish.”
Kilkenny cats are an Irish breed known for their ferocity. Legend has it that “two of them, fighting in a saw-pit, bit and scratched so long and so ferociously that at last only two tails were left in the arena: each had devoured the other.”
But not only have the Irish uttered bulls—absurdly illogical statements. Samuel Goldwyn (1879-1974) gained as much notoriety for this type of blunder as for his Hollywood filmmaking successes. He said of one of his stars, “We’re overpaying him, but he’s worth it.” To someone who annoyed him he remarked, “I never liked you, and I always will.” It was also Goldwyn who supposedly said, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on” and “Include me out.” Here are some other Goldwyn gems:
Television has raised writing to a new low.
If Roosevelt were alive today, he’d turn over in his grave.
It’s more than magnificent—it’s mediocre.
A bachelor’s life is no life for a single man.
For your information, I would like to ask a question.
Any man who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.
Yogi Berra (b. 1925), former New York Yankees catcher, has shown a particular genius for sprung logic, if all the statements attributed to him can be believed. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” is one of his famous remarks. Another is, “Sometimes you can observe a lot by watching.” He is also credited with saying that “Ninety-nine percent of this game is half mental” and “Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.”
One day someone asked him, “What time is it?” and Berra replied, “You mean right now?” Another time a waitress in a pizza parlor asked if he wanted his pizza cut into four slices or eight. Berra reportedly said, “Better make it four. I don’t think I can eat eight pieces.”
Other bulls ascribed to Berra are the following:
Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.
I’m not buying my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did. (Funny, but this one strains credulity.)
When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.
It gets late early out here.
The future ain’t what it used to be.