USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘science’
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

The Mathematician, The Physicist and the Engineer

The Mathematician, The Physicist and the Engineer

Informant: I’m a math-econ major so I was always highly interested in math, science, and engineering. I heard this from one of my math professors in high school. Weirdly it was one of my math professors or my religion teacher. So basically you have a mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer. And so they are all in separate classrooms and a fire breaks out in their rubbish pails simultaneously. Uh . . . I can’t remember which one was which, but the physicist calculates the exact amount required to put out the fire and then put outs the fire with very little mess. The engineer just dumps water on it to put out the fire and makes a huge mess. The mathematician on the other hand starts writing on the board, fills up one board, goes on to the next, fills up that one, goes on to the next, fills up that one, puts down his chalk and says, “it can be done, it can be put out”. And that’s basically the joke; it plays off of stereotypes of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians

Interviewer: How old were you approximately when you first heard it?

Informant: I was in high school so I was around 16-17 in Washington D.C

Interviewer: Do you tell it to other people?

Informant: Not really anymore, because I don’t remember it properly. I found it hilarious when I first heard it because I found it so true.

Interviewer’s notes:

This joke is a type of Blason Populaire. The humor of the joke plays off of the stereotypes of physicists as precise, engineers as messy, and mathematicians as over -thinkers. It is interesting to note that the informant is in the same field of study of the subjects of the joke which is indicative of why the informant is compelled to proliferate the joke. For the informant, the humor is enhanced by her ability to relate.

Folk speech

Joke: The Doctor and his Chauffeur

Informant: “So there is this doctor and he’s famous, he’s not super-duper famous, but he’s pretty famous. He gives quite a few talks and all these things. He’s got one particular talk that he gives a lot which is sort of his spiel, people like it, he’s sort of got it down. He has a chauffeur who always drives him around to his various speeches and things like that, and this chauffeur sits in the audience at uh for all of his speeches, he just sort of waits around. So one day, in the car, the doctor says to the chauffeur, ‘you know you’ve probably heard my speech tons of times and you probably know it by heart right now. I’ve given this speech a lot, you know its good, but I’m a little bored of it, why don’t you for once just go up on the stage and you pretend to be me and you give the speech,’ and so the chauffeur says ‘ok, yeah sure, I’ll do that.’ And, he accepts the offer and so for the next speech they go there and the doctor puts on the chauffeur’s outfit and the chauffeur dresses like the doctor and pretends to be him. And so, he goes there and the doctor sits in the audience as the chauffeur and the chauffeur gets up onstage and starts giving the talk. So he begins, and its going well, its good, he’s got it all down, it’s clear that he’s listened to this speech a lot of times, and so he’s getting towards the end, and its all perfect, and it gets to the end and… he nailed it, all well. So its all good, applause, nobody could tell it was not the doctor. The audience loves it, and it goes to the question and answer session as it usually does, you know, fairly typical questions. And then, one person raises their hand and then they ask a question that’s never been asked before. So, the chauffeur is up there on stage and he is thinking, and then he says to the person… that is the stupidest question I have ever heard in my life, even my chauffeur could answer it.”


The informant is a young man who comes from Mission Hills,San Diego and describes himself as relatively “quiet and introverted” and “nerdy.” The informant is a sophomore neuroscience major at USC and works in a neuroscience image and understanding lab, which focused on visual research. It was from the professor in this lab that the informant heard the joke. According to the informant, the professor he works for is “just filled with stories. I’ll go to say bye to him and he just tells me all this stuff.” According to the informant, he learned the joke when he was working in the lab; while they were discussing research, they got sidetracked and the professor told him this joke.

The informant likes this joke because “its got this long buildup and you chuckle at a few things because you think the joke is coming up, but its not. You wonder if the speech is going to work or not, you keep thinking something is going to go wrong, but it’s only at the end that you get the punchline… Its superb. My professor’s told me a lot of things, not a lot stuck, but that did.” The informant uses this joke around friends to “break the ice.”

This joke utilizes a particularly long narrative form, and it gains part of its humor from the suspense that it creates. As the informant said, this joke has a particularly long buildup which defies expectations and is why the informant found it so funny.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Folk speech
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Urban Legend – Masturbation Leads to Blindness

“Too much masturbation can result in blindness.”


My informant first heard this urban legend in his middle school in Downey, CA in seventh grade.  He was in the locker rooms with some of his friends changing after their Physical Education period.  The guys were horsing playing and talking candidly about private issues.  After bouts of laughter and socking each other in the arms, some of them settled down on the bench waiting for the rest of their friends to finish changing.  One of his friends started talking about pornography and how he started downloading them.  Then David asked if any of them had started masturbating.  His friend replied that he did but with caution because he heard from his older brother who was in high school that too much masturbation can lead to blindness.

I do not believe this to have any anatomically scientific basis to it – hence, it is an urban legend.  I think David’s friend’s older brother was playing a prank on his younger brother.  I have heard another variation that masturbating too much results in hair growing on your hand.  I believe people have told this urban legend in the past because initially it was taboo for people to engage in what some people, especially religious people, thought to be immoral habits.  However, nowadays people are a lot more accepting of this behavior calling it natural.