I collected this bit of wordplay from my mother (LP) in a face-to-face interview. She grew up in a white Unitarian household in suburban Colorado in the late 20th century. She learned this joke from her mother, who pulled the prank on her and her brother when they were young.
The prankster says to their victim:
“Say: ‘owa tagu saiam’”
After repeating it, the prankster asks them to say it faster until it sounds like they’re saying “o what a goose I am.”
I remember other silly word pranks like this from my childhood, where one person employs a riddle or a pun to get another person to say something self-deprecating or otherwise humorous. The appeal of the joke comes from the moment of recognition when a string of nonsensical sounds becomes language. These games, while seemingly inconsequential and banal, offer a profound look into the mechanisms of signification. The humor of the joke comes from the moment of recognition in which a string of nonsensical sounds becomes meaningful, takes on significance. What was thought to be nonsense becomes sense, becomes a signifier of something completely unexpected.
The prank points to a couple of interesting traits of spoken language. One, that sounds bear no intrinsic relation to their significances: a string of gibberish to one person in one particular subject position (the victim when speaking the phrase slowly) can hold meaning to those occupying other subject positions (the prankster and the victim after the moment of recognition.) Secondly, it reminds the participants that all words are first and foremost just sound. Sounds are assembled and juxtaposed to signify abstract notions, and this process of signification can get so entrenched, so internalized that the signified takes precedence over the signifier, and the language-bearer is “tricked” into equating the two. This prank shatters that implicit assumption by pointing to the sonorous qualities of the word and laying bare the process by which sounds are tied to meanings. This disenchantment with the word, the recognition of the materiality of the signifier, has radical implications. For one, it allows for a kind of verbal play, a refiguration of sounds and their meanings, a liberation from the logocentric notion that words contain no ambiguity, no internal contradiction, that individual words always mean the same thing, like in a dictionary. But dictionaries are produced and disseminated by publishing companies that operate under certain ideological agendas which are always political, which have in their interest the imposition of hegemony.
Such pranks as these can act as subversive and counter-hegemonic, calling into question the ways in which meaning is constructed through language, opening up the potential for resistance through wordplay.