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I'm reading Will Ferrell's Twitter where he wrote

Just thought a thought but the thought I thought wasn't the thought I thought I thought.

Does the sentence still have the same meaning if you remove the last "I thought"?

Is this grammatical word play possible with other words?

Is there a name for this other than a play on words?

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I am not sure what the term for these are but the oddest one I can recall is Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo –  MrHen Mar 22 '11 at 22:43
    
This seems to be a common tongue twister going back at least to 1986 and possibly earlier. It often continues "If the thought I thought I thought had been the thought I thought, I wouldn't have thought so much." –  Henry Mar 22 '11 at 22:48
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There are three meanings of the word: the animal, the city, and the verb meaning "to fool" or "to lie to." You could translate as "City animals (that) City animals lie to also lie to city animals". –  Ernest Friedman-Hill Mar 23 '11 at 3:16
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@JPmiaou Why didn’t you just follow the link?! It offers an in-depth explanation. –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 23 '11 at 9:26
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I have never heard of a verb sense for "buffalo". Ever. Can anyone point me to such a use in something other than the eight-repetitions example? –  JPmiaou Mar 23 '11 at 16:09

4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The best way to understand something like this is to replace each occurrence of the repeated word with either a synonym, or something that matches its part of speech:

Just came up with an idea, but the idea I came up with wasn't the idea I believed I came up with.

As you can see, removing the last "I thought" either changes the meaning, or results in a contradiction:

  • Just came up with an idea, but the idea I came up with wasn't the idea I believed – inventing an idea you don't believe is quite different from misremembering what idea you invented.

  • Just came up with an idea, but the idea I came up with wasn't the idea I came up with – this is a contradiction, and doesn't make a lot of sense. (Well, not that the original makes a whole lot of sense, either.)

I don't know if there's an official term for this sort of phrase. Depending on the repeated word, it could be considered a tongue-twister. For the famous buffalo example mentioned by MrHen in the comments, Wikipedia just says it's "an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated linguistic constructs."

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Re: substitutes for "thought"... see my comments on the other answers. When you substitute synonyms or words of the same part of speech, you don't necessarily get all the same phenomena as with the original word. In particular, both "thought" and "believed", but especially "thought", at the end of a clause can invoke anaphora. –  LarsH Apr 21 '11 at 21:48

If you remove the last "I thought", you get a contradiction in

the thought I thought wasn't the thought I thought

R D Laing called this sort of thing Knots. One example is

He is devoured by his devouring fear of being devoured by her devouring desire for him to devour her.

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If you remove the last "I thought", you get a contradiction - I'm not sure you do. The last "I thought" could be followed by "zero anaphora". As in "I guess the car I saw wasn't the one I thought", where "[I saw]" is understood: "I guess that the car that I saw wasn't the one that I thought that I saw." –  LarsH Apr 21 '11 at 21:40
    
@LarsH: My view is that to get your meaning you need the final "I thought". Even if what he had originally thought was not what he thought he had originally thought, it was (by definition) what he had originally thought. –  Henry Apr 21 '11 at 22:26
    
It's not the last 'I thought' that is removed, it is the second to last. The second to last could be replaced by 'I believe' (and then removed) and still make sense but the last one can't be replaced by 'I believe' and removed and have as close a meaning. –  Mitch Oct 7 at 2:32

If you remove the last 'I thought' you get a contradiction. Consider the central phrase, "The thought I thought wasn't the thought I thought." Replacing all instances of 'thought' with a different noun and verb we get, "The car I drive wasn't the car I drove." If we put the 'I thought' back into our car/drove example we get, "The car I drove wasn't the car I thought I drove."

This grammatical word play is possible with any words that have can be taken as multiple parts of speech, especially noun/verb. An example from a book of puzzles I have asks: "Who could make the following statement? 'We eat what we can and can what we can't.'" The answer is a farmer or a fisherman.

During a meeting at the [fictional] local diet club, the chairperson exclaimed, "We have to fast, FAST!"

I'm not aware of any official name for these kinds of wordplay.

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Replacing all instances of 'thought' with a different noun and verb we get - good point, but just because car/drive yields a contradiction doesn't mean that thought/thought does. Consider "The bottle I opened wasn't the bottle I thought." An implied "I opened" is understood at the end. Similarly "The thought I thought wasn't the thought I thought" could be reasonably interpreted to mean "The thought I thought wasn't the thought I thought [I thought]." –  LarsH Apr 21 '11 at 21:43

This depends to a degree on your interpretation of "same meaning". Two different sentences will almost invariably have slightly different implications. Even substituting a synonym or alternate spelling can alter the meaning read into a sentence, if not the meaning written into it. "I like the colour red" is not the same as "I like the color red". One might read "I'm British and I like red", while the other might read "I'm American and I like red". That said, it's probably safe to assume most people will interpret "same meaning" as either "same intent" or "similar enough meaning".

Contrary to the other answers, I don't feel that there would necessarily be a contradiction - the more natural reading would be to assume ellipsis.

First, let's look at the original sentence and try to understand it by imagining what the thoughts might have been. Let's imagine that Will thought "apple", but thought that he thought "potato". Let's also mark the verb "thought" with "[v]":

Just thought[v] a thought[apple] but the thought[apple] I thought[v] wasn't the thought[potato] I thought[v] I thought[v].

Clear enough. Now let's write the sentence again, minus the final "I thought":

Just thought[v] a thought[apple] but the thought[apple] I thought[v] wasn't the thought[potato] I thought[v].

This sounds clumsy, and to some it will sound like a paradox: "[the thought I thought] wasn't [the thought I thought]". However, the sentence is not as paradoxical as you might think it is. Most people will read an implicit word or phrase beyond what has actually been written. This is ellipsis.

Interpreting the shortened sentence in this way is a little ambiguous. We can either recover the original sentence exactly or perhaps more naturally:

Just thought a thought but the thought I thought wasn't the thought I thought it was.

Whether you think this has the same meaning as the original sentence is up to you. Both sentences describe a situation in which Will thought "apple", but imagined that he had thought "potato".

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