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I was drawn to the expression, “I wish I could have pastrami on wry“in the beginning sentence of Maureen Dowd’s article, titled “Still mad as hell” in New York Times (February 8):

"I often wonder what Paddy would think. I wish I could have a pastrami on wry with the late writer and satirist at the Carnegie Deli and get an exhilarating blast of truth about “the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today.” What would Paddy Chayefsky make of Kim Kardashian?"

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/opinion/sunday/dowd-still-mad-as-hell.html?hp&rref=opinion

Though it appears to me the word, “wry” being used as a noun in the above sentence, none of Cambridge, Oxford, and Merriam -Webster English dictionary shows “wry” as a noun.

CED defines it only as an adjective: (before noun) showing that you find a bad or difficult situation slightly funny.”

OED defines it as an adjective:

  1. using or expressing dry, especially mocking, humor: example wry smile, wry comments
  2. (of a person’s face or features) twisted into an expression of disgust, disappointment, or annoyance.
  3. archaic (of the neck or features) distorted or turned to one side:

Merriam-Webster defines it as a verb:

  1. (vi) twist, writhe.
  2. (vt) to pull out of, or as if out of proper shape :

and adjective:

  • humorous in a clever and often ironic way.
  • showing both amusement and a feeling of being tired, annoyed, etc.

Here are my questions:

  1. What does “I wish I could have pastrami on wry“ mean? Is it a Dowd’s usual lingo? Does “wry” here mean twist or irony?
  2. Can “wry” be used as a noun as well as wryness?
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6  
Wry is a pun on rye (bread) here. Not sure what it's supposed to mean though. The quote looks a bit garbled. –  Bradd Szonye Feb 9 at 3:21
2  
Note that she identifies Paddy as a satirist. That's a good hint as to how she meant "wry" to be interpreted. –  adam.r Feb 9 at 5:54
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This is just another in a long string of failed witticisms from Dowd. wry is a homophone of rye, and that's really all there is here. Between Dowd and Brooks, the NYT op-ed page is (imo) pretty much a lost cause these days. –  Jon Kiparsky Feb 9 at 7:46
    
It doesn't work well even in its own terms; 'wry' is a bad fit for 'exhilarating blast of truth' - it implies something much more subtle than a 'blast'. –  peterG Feb 9 at 14:31
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3 Answers 3

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Rye is the kind of bread that tastes best with pastrami. "Pastrami on rye" is a common deli sandwich. It's a pun based on the homophonic quality of the words wry and rye, probably chosen because the person the writer is reflecting on had a characteristically dry wit.

Personally, I find it too much of a stretch to be really witty, especially since you have to see it written to understand the joke. On the other hand, the specific location she gives makes it seem like she's referring to something that I am too culturally ignorant to get. Maybe this was a reference to something Cheyefsky had said before with regard to his favorite deli, for instance, and the writer is working in a mention to show her knowledge of and affection for his work.

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It didn't occur to me that this is a pun of wry and rye. Though it's a matter of taste, is this a spicy (witty) pun? I can't tell as a non-native English speaker. –  Yoichi Oishi Feb 9 at 4:24
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@YoichiOishi I would say the usage itself is very dry--it's clever, but not overtly so. I usually reserve the word "witty" for something with a bit more punch, that seems delivered in the moment as a quick reaction. –  NReilingh Feb 9 at 5:55
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Pastrami on wry is allusion to pastrami on rye.

And while wry is generally an adjective, it is being used here as a noun to mean something around the definitions:

  1. using or expressing dry, especially mocking, humor: example wry smile, wry comments

Here, the pastrami on rye allusion means to eat with and then by extension to enjoy spending time with and delighting in what they can produce. In this case, what he can produce is wry. So she wants to hear how he would mock the stupid things that are happening today.

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I suspect Ms Dowd has simply misspelled "wry" for "rye. Pastrami on rye bread is a common deli sandwich. Just a way of saying spend some easy, quality time with someone.

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3  
Your suspicion is poor. It is an intentional substitution of a word with identical pronunciation to make a point. We would not call this a misspelling. –  virmaior Feb 9 at 4:14
7  
Given Dowd's experience as a writer, I'd expect her to know the difference between "wry" and "rye". Given the newspaper in which this was published (NYT), I'd expect a spelling error to be caught by the editors. In this context, I'd make a little effort to figure out what Dowd is trying to say, rather than dismissing it as an error. As such, she provided a pretty obvious hint when she identified Paddy as a satirist. –  adam.r Feb 9 at 5:52
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-1: the substitution is intentional –  kevin cline Feb 9 at 7:51
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It's scary to think that two people upvoted this "answer". "I wish I could have a pastrami on wry" simply means "I wish I could spend some quality time with someone?" –  J.R. Feb 9 at 18:55
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