May 22, 2006

Citation quest

In my last post I dropped in the phrase "one non sequitur after catfish" because, well, it's a great turn of phrase, managing to illustrate the idea within the sentence in a sort of higher-level onomatopoeia. I had thought that the phrase, catfish and all, was a moderately well-known way of accomplishing this illustration (hence decreasing their mutual information entropy and thus actually making it less illustrative, but anyway).

It turns out that googling for the phrase turns up only that post (as observed by Lee, who also pointed that damn, but google spiders this blog frequently). So where could I have gotten this from? I certainly didn't come up with it myself, though I'd like to think I'm clever enough to have done so. I have it as an entry in my quotesfile, though unattributed; based on its location in the file, it appears to date from early grad school, so say 1997. It looks like it got added as part of a batch, as I did from time to time back when people forwarded around lists of jokes that were actually funny. That would explain the lack of attribution, as by then I was already being fairly careful to attribute quotes of people I actually recorded myself.

Googling on a slightly less constrained search turns up someone else's quotesfile, who has terrible spelling but includes this quote otherwise identically. And here, it's attributed—to one Brian Postow, apparently a CS prof at Union College in Schenectady. Hooray!

Following up this lead, I landed on Postow's own quotes page, which like mine (and probably the other guy's) has its origin in a fortune database, the list of sayings and quotes that you get one of every time you type fortune on older Unix systems. Postow explains this at the top of his page, along with the caveat "Everyone else who isn't otherwise specified was probably a cs major at Oberlin, or a friend of mine from somewhere else... Or, of course some famous type person...".

So, he might not be the source after all. And the really funny part: his own version of the quote does not involve catfish. "Life is just one non sequitur after fruit bat." That page (along with, soon, this one) are the only hits for that formulation. Back to square one.

Continued slogging through Google hits turns up something that may or may not be directly related, but seems promising. Poem CXC in the book 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 by Kenneth Goldsmith ends with the line

...and catfish is a non-sequitur;
It was published in 1997, though, and remains somewhat obscure (well, to me), so I'm not totally convinced it would've had time to first morph into the "life is a..." form and then make its way into the geeksphere in time for me to add it to the 'file. It's possible someone familiar with the poem read Postow's fruit bat verson of the line, perceived that catfish would be funnier, and thus modified it. It's possible they're independent.

Or, it could be that non sequiturs and catfish go back a long way. I'm tapped for now; anyone got anything else?

Life is just one non sequitur after catfish. --??

Posted by blahedo at 11:06am on 22 May 2006
First off, the batch import of which this is a part was from my quotes file. Second, Brian Postow is a FOAF of mine from UMD. (Did you meet my friend Steph at some point? She is the mutual friend and is quoted in his quotes file as well as my own.) Anyhow, I'm pretty sure I picked up that quote from someone's Usenet sig some time between 1992 and 1994. A search of Google Groups seems to indicate that one Paul Foxworthy used it as a sig quote during that time. That's as far back as I can trace it. You'd have to ask him where he got it. Posted by Greg at 9:49pm on 22 May 2006
Oooh, interesting. I hadn't thought to separately check Google Groups. It appears that Paul is a Wikipedian, so I dropped him a line over there; we'll see if he responds, I guess. Posted by blahedo at 10:27pm on 22 May 2006
Catfish is funnier in the line, although I would normally think that fruit bat is the funnier of the two animals. Posted by lee at 6:07am on 23 May 2006
See, fruit bat is funnier to me. Dunno why. :-) Posted by Chris T. at 11:23am on 25 May 2006
Incidentally, Paul Foxworthy eventually responded to my note on Wikipedia, and apparently the saying is not original to him, either, speculating that it perhaps just came from a "thoughts for the day" program. So, who knows? But if anyone wonders about the origins of the phrase, they'll at least find their way to this post. And if anyone *knows* more about said origins, they're welcome to post here. :) Posted by blahedo at 12:03am on 8 Oct 2006
I continue to love the internet. Today I got an email from Brian Postow (who is mentioned in the body of the post), who is pretty sure he initiated the line while at college in the early 90s. He adds,
Originally, it WAS after catfish, however, I changed it because of another joke: How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light-bulb? Fish. The upshot was that "fish" could never be a non-sequitur because of that joke. Thus, I changed it to fruitbat.
I still think catfish is funnier. :) But hey! Mystery solved! Posted by blahedo at 3:11pm on 2 Nov 2006
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