Daily Archives: February 16, 2011


Well, the first question to come out tonight is “How do you buffalo gals?”

And one answer, based on a discussion I had with a few gals today, is with a sentence such as the following:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.

Don’t say “water you talking about.” This is not some frankly incoherent concatenation – not like the excellent “Chicken” PowerPoint. No, this is a grammatically coherent sentence (even if a semantically inane one). And it happens to make use of three different aspects of this word: common noun, proper noun, and verb.

Of course, you may well be buffaloed by being buffeted with so many buffaloes in the buff, but I’m not bluffing. But first, let us look at the several aspects of this word, beginning with the observation that not all buffaloes or Buffaloes are buffaloes.

The original buffalo is what we now often call the water buffalo; it’s recognizable not only by its massiveness but by its horns, which roll off the top of its head and onto the sides and then curl up a bit like a certain 1960s female hair style. It got its name from the Greek βουβαλος boubalos; our version of the word came via Latin and Portuguese. There is also an African buffalo that looks much the same as the water buffalo, though its relation is uncertain, partly because they’re such ornery things that it’s hard to find out.

And then there is what we Canadians and Americans call a buffalo, which is really – as pedants will delight in pointing out – a bison. It looks rather different from the Asian and African buffaloes, with a hump on its back and its horns starting on the sides of its head and curving up. I happen to have grown up in a place where there were a reasonable number of these “buffalo” (note the zero-inflecting plural, which is also available for the real buffalo – or one can use buffaloes in either case).

Contrast that with my dad, who grew up in a place where there were none (save perhaps in a zoo) but that was (and still is) nonetheless called Buffalo. Now, why would that city be called that? Well, it was named after Buffalo Creek. Oh, OK… so how did Buffalo Creek get its name? The most popular answer is that it’s a corruption of French beau fleuve. Alas, this probably isn’t true, not only because Buffalo Creek is too small to be a fleuve but because the story has beau fleuve being a reference to the Niagara River, when in fact it’s suitably well established that the city name comes from the creek. The reason for the name of the creek has not so far been established, alas.

There is, incidentally, another proper noun Buffalo: it refers to a member of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, a British and Australian fraternal organization modelled on the Freemasons. (It is not the organization of which Fred Flintstone is a member; that’s the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.)

From buffaloes, bison, and Buffaloes, we get several travelling companions for buffalo, notably buffalo grass, buffalo clover, buffalo fly, buffalo chips (which are similar to cow patties), and Buffalo wings (capitalized because this kind of spicy chicken wing was invented at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo).

And then there’s the verb, which means to cow someone – to bully, overpower, or simply befuddle. But whereas the verb cow is originally unrelated to the noun cow, but is often thought of as equating the object of the action with a cow, buffalo equates the subject of the action with a buffalo.

Now back to my eleven-buffalo sentence. It – or the pattern for it, as in theory one can make an effectively unlimited number of variations on it – was invented by William J. Rapaport of the University of Buffalo. It has made the rounds since. Let me spell out how it works in the version presented above.

A key stunt in this sentence is that we can leave out the that in English relative clauses, as in things cat lovers hate instead of things that cat lovers hate. So let’s build this sentence from the basics, using Niagara in place of Buffalo, bison in place of the noun buffalo, and bully in place of the verb. There’s always a main subject, verb, and object as the fundamental framework of a sentence:
Bison bully bison.

What kind of bison?
Niagara bison bully Niagara bison.

Is there something about those Niagara bison you want to add? Yes – they’re bullied by other Niagara bison:
Niagara bison that Niagara bison bully, bully Niagara bison.
This is like “Things that cat lovers hate please dog lovers.” I’ve added the formally improper comma before the verb, as is sometimes done in a case of this complexity.

Oh, and the Niagara bison that are bullied are also, of course, bullied by Niagara bison:
Niagara bison (that Niagara bison bully) bully Niagara bison that Niagara bison bully.

Now, we can write all that without any internal punctuation:
Niagara bison that Niagara bison bully bully Niagara bison that Niagara bison bully.

And then take out the thats, because we can:
Niagara bison Niagara bison bully bully Niagara bison Niagara bison bully.

Already that looks incomprehensible. Swap in buffalo for each word and you have the final treat:
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.

Syntax trees can make things like this much easier, but it would be bothersome to do one up just for this word tasting note. If you want to see one, Google buffalo buffalo buffalo.

It happens that it’s possible to extend this sentence indefinitely by nesting relative clauses, but that quickly becomes baffling (even baleful) and would leave all with a beef, so I will not let it befall.