Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

BuffaloI don’t know how I missed this all these years. At some point last week, Chris Hayes mentioned the sentence “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” Being the kind of guy I am, I went crazy with it. I even dreamed about it. It’s all syntax so it was very much like the kind of math dreams I used to have with ideas and equations bursting into my mind from what always felt like different locations. This sentence is very much like a mathematical equation.

There are three different definitions of “buffalo” here: two nouns and a verb. The nouns are “Buffalo” the city and “buffalo” the animal. The verb is a synonym for “bamboozle.” It is more easily thought of as follows:

Buffalo from Buffalo that buffalo other buffalo from Buffalo also buffalo other buffalo from Buffalo.

It does show the vagaries of the language. One might say, “People other people abuse are often abusive.” It is clearer to say, “People whom other people abuse are often abusive.” But I don’t think anyone has a problem with the original construct. That’s especially true when spoken. In writing, I find it confusing and so I try to not do such things. It is best if the reader can gradually understand a sentence rather than have to figure it out in retrospect.

So given our sentence, it helps to set off “Buffalo buffalo,” which means “buffalo from Buffalo.” I’m going to do that and throw in a couple of commas as well:

(Buffalo buffalo), (Buffalo buffalo) buffalo, buffalo (Buffalo buffalo).

This actually allows us to get rid of “Buffalo” altogether. We’ll just assume that all the buffalo we are talking about are from Buffalo. Now the sentence is much simpler:

Buffalo, buffalo buffalo, buffalo buffalo.

Now let’s substitute “bamboozle” for our verb “buffalo”:

Buffalo, buffalo bamboozle, bamboozle buffalo.

I think the sentence is clear enough that we come to an uncomfortable truth: it is not a very useful sentence. Most likely, all it means that buffalo from Buffalo bamboozle each other. Strictly speaking, it means that there are a set of buffalo from Buffalo who bamboozle each other. So the con artist buffalo are prone to each other. In terms of meaning, it is no great shakes. But the syntax is nice: noun noun, noun noun verb, verb noun noun. It’s fun to play with.

Now maybe I can stop thinking about it!


If you want to know the history of the sentence, Wikipedia has a very nice page on it.

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