Sunday May 23, 2004

"Nothing but Gingerbread Left"

[Warning: spoilers ahead!]

In 1943, Henry Kuttner wrote a short story in which language and semantics turn the tide of World War II. "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" is both the title of the story and the name of a marching song in the story—or rather, of an approximate English translation of a German marching song. Like the song that Reich uses as a mind-shield in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, the gingerbread song is catchy—so catchy, and so distracting, that it sweeps through the German-speaking world and sabotages military morale and efficiency.

The writer of the song is a professor named Phil Rutherford, who is "in charge of semantics at the University". One night while correcting papers, he overhears his son repeating a schoolyard rhyme used for choosing sides: "Ibbety zibbety zibbety zam—". He can't get it out of his head, and he has trouble concentrating on his work. Later, while discussing the morale of German soldiers in occupied Europe with with one of his honor students, Jerry O'Brien, he brings up the distracting rhyme.

"Ibbety zibbety," Bill muttered.

"Like that," O'Brien said. "Get some crazy tune going around a guy's skull, and he'll find it difficult to concentrate. I know I do, sometimes, whenever I go for a thing like the Hut-Sut song." [more about the Hut-Sut song below...]

Rutherford said suddenly, "Remember the dancing manias of the middle ages?"

"Form of hysteria, wasn't it? People lined up in queues and jitterbugged till they dropped."

"Rhythmic nervous exaltation. It's never been satisfactorily explained."

They wonder if they might apply their knowledge of German and semantics and write a song that's so catchy you can't forget it.

"Exactly." Rutherford looked pleased. "Get a perfect semantic formula and you can't forget it. And the perfect formula would have everything. It'd have rhythm, and just enough sense to start you wondering what it meant. It woudn't necessarily mean anything, but—"

"Could such a formula be invented?"

"Yeah. Yeah. Combine language with mathematics and psychology, and something could be worked out. Could be, such a thing was accidentally written in the middle ages..."

They write the song, and arrange to have it broadcast into occupied Europe. Crucially for their plan, the song is langauge-specific, so it will only work on German speakers. Kuttner doesn't provide us the song itself, of course. As he says in the opening lines of the story, "The only way to make people believe this story is to write it in German. And there's no point in doing that, for the German-speaking world is already starting to worry about gingerbread left." But he does give us an approximate translation:

LEFT a wife and SEVenteen children in
STARVing condition with NOTHing but gingerbread LEFT
LEFT a wife and SEVenteen children—

The rest of the story is a series of vignettes that shows the song spreading and disrupting Nazi forces in Europe. I particularly like several stream-of-consciousness passages that show the song hijacking the thought processes of various Germans. Here's an officer named Eggerth, stationed in Poland:

Eggerth bent over the report, squinting in the bad light. Ten head of cattle, scarely worth slaughtering for their meat, but the cows giving little milk . . . Hm-m-m. Grain—the situation was bad there, too. How the Poles managed to eat at all—they'd be glad enough to have gingerbread, Eggerth thought. For that matter, gingerbread was nutritious, wasn't it? Why were they in starving condition if there was still gingerbread? Maybe there wasn't much

Still, why nothing but gingerbread? Could is be, perhaps, that the family disliked it so much that they ate up everything else first? A singlularly shortsighted group. Possibly their ration cards allowed them nothing but gingerbread LEFT
LEFT a wife and SEVenteen children in
STARVing condition—

Here's Herr Doktor Schneidler, a Nazi scientist (and excellent stereotype) who keep ruining his experiments because he can't focus, as he tries to unwind on a train:

He lay back on the cushions, relaxing. Thing about nothing. That was it. Let the precision tool of his mind rest for a while. Let his mind wander free. Listen to the somnolent rhythm of the wheels, clickety-clickety
CLICK a wife and CLICKenteen children in
STARVing condition with NOTHing but gingerbread

The story continues in this vein, showing increasing disruption to the German war effort. German soldiers fail to see the Polish resistance machine guns they're searching for, even though they're right before their eyes. Germans manning anti-aircraft artillery don't shoot down Allied planes because they're preoccupied with an abandoned family surviving on gingerbread. Gunners on German bombers fail to open fire on attacking fighters because they too busy singing. Finally the little song about gingerbread works it way up to the highest levels of the Nazi hierarchy. I won't spoil the ending. Go read it.

It's interesting to compare this story with the Bester novel I wrote about before. They both use the idea of a catchy, circular song that gets stuck in your head, but in rather different ways. In Bester's story, the song is just a very catchy TV theme song that the murderer Reich uses for a new purpose: to shield his mind from police telepaths. In Kuttner's story (which was written some years earlier), on the other hand, the song is a precision weapon, designed using semantic, mathematical, and psychological principles to worm it's way into the minds of German speakers and sabotage their efficiency. In both cases the rhythm and meter of the song are important, and the meaning is also key in the Kuttner story, but neither story mentions the syntax of the song. I suspect that if such a story were written today, the writer would make analogies with computers, and have the songs' syntax be designed to crash or infinite-loop the sentence processing mechanisms in the brain. In fact, there's some stuff like this in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (which I'll probably get around to writing about one of these days—I'll have to reread it first).

The idea that there are scientific principles of language (and of the mind, and history, and philosophy...) that can be easily turned into applied techniques was quite common in science fiction in those days. Several prominent writers were devotees of Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics, a (pseudo?) scientific theory of language and meaning. These included A. E. Van Vogt, who based his novel The World of Null-A on ideas from General Semantics, and later got involved in Dianetics. I actually have a copy of Korzybski's Science and Sanity that I found at a thrift store a few years ago, but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet—if GS were really that good, wouldn't it be more than an odd footnote in the history of science fiction? I'll report back if I ever get through it.

I wonder, by the way, if the guys in Monty Python based their sketch about the funniest joke in the world on "Nothing but Gingerbread Left". The idea of inflicting a fatally funny joke on the Germans during WWII is very close to Kuttner's scheme, but it's impossible to rule out independent invention.

Also, at the risk of drifting into patented Lileks territory, here's a link to a page where you can hear "The Hut-Sut Song" that Rutherford refers to. Fair warning, the chorus is pretty catchy, so don't listen if you need to conquer Europe this month.

Finally, here's an article I found on the web that covers much of the same ground as this post.

[Now playing endlessly in my head: "The Hut-Sut Song" by Freddy Martin]

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The "fatal joke" goes back at least as far as 1915 and Lord Dunsany, "The Three Infernal Jokes." What the lines of influence are, of course, I can't say.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 23, 2004 7:24:29 AM

Oh, it goes back a good deal further than that. I direct your attention to "The Height of the Ridiculous," by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894):

Posted by: language hat at May 23, 2004 12:07:13 PM

Hmm. That's a somewhat-above-average swing-dancin song, right sort of melody and accompanyment, just needs to be about twice as long with someone lining out some lyrics for a second verse (or just repeat with lyrics). I listen to so much swing though that it falls immediately out of memory.

Posted by: agm at May 23, 2004 2:38:53 PM

er, repeat the melody without lyrics. sorry =).

Posted by: agm at May 23, 2004 2:39:42 PM

Tangentially related to the idea of the fatal joke (and perhaps linguistically related too), the fatal story: Banana Yoshimoto's "NP" is about a story that reputedly causes the people who translate it to commit suicide.

Posted by: Emily at May 23, 2004 5:05:15 PM

Isaac Asimov seems to me to have had a change of heart about the idea that you can invent such deadly psychological tools over the course of the Foundation novels. The original Foundation is an out-and-out celebration of the idea that psychology can be made into a precise applied science; even his later introduction of the Mule strikes me as designed to show that while individuals might be able to affect history, the science can be adapted to deal with them (i.e., the Second Foundation). When he returned to the series 30 years later, though, the second trilogy reflected a much greater appreciation for the role of individuals. I read that as corresponding to a similarly greater skepticism about the ability of psychology to really deliver such control over history, let alone individuals (the latter of which, in fairness, he always disclaimed).

Posted by: Semantic Compositions at May 24, 2004 2:31:48 PM

Thanks for mentioning my piece on earworms like "Nothing But Gingerbread" and "Tenser." If I mention it again here:
and add its follow-up:
-- it's on the off-chance I can get your erudite readership interested in resolving some of the other questions I raise, such as whether Kuttner used an already existing cadence chant or children's rhyme to construct "Gingerbread," the relationship between earworms and other "voices in your head," etc.

Re: Count Korzybski, there's a nice snapshot of the man and his work in Martin Gardner's FADS AND FALLACIES IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE, which I suspect you would enjoy a good deal more than SCIENCE AND SANITY. Most people seem to agree that the Count was a member of the "What was good wasn't original, what was original wasn't good" club.

Posted by: Bill at May 25, 2004 8:39:31 PM

The fundamental principles of General Semantics are really common-sense stuff. The whole point is that common sense isn't very common, but you can teach yourself to think sensibly and accurately if you put your mind to it. I usually explain it by reference to the old story of the blind men and the elephant: If they'd studied GS, they wouldn't have fallen into the trap of thinking that what their hands felt was the entirety of what an elephant is, and they would have ended up with a much truer picture of that elephant.

Posted by: Wanderer at Oct 2, 2005 11:59:15 PM

Dave Langford also cites E.B. White's "The Supremacy of Uruguay", Mark Twain's "Punch, Brothers, Punch", and Fritz Leiber's "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee."

Posted by: FS at May 22, 2007 9:24:52 AM

The key point that Korzybski seems to miss is that, to use Bill's example, all the blind men's descriptions describe parts of the elephant, and that their only hope of describing the entire elephant is to accept ALL the views and UNITE them into a common theory. GS would, as I understand from the PDF, say that the views were only opinions and that the entire elephant is unknowable. Sort of like Jung without the controlling aspect.

Posted by: Collin at Aug 20, 2007 10:49:37 AM