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I read a narrative where the author was talking about her childhood. She said that one day she and her father, a brother and a sister were inside the car, the kids were eating popcorn and drinking cream soda. Someone said something funny at the very same moment in which she was drinking the cream soda. As a result she aspirated the drinking and choked. The situation got pretty serious, but after a while she recovered. So, her brother asked: "Did it go down your windpipe?" She replied: "I don’t know—I don’t know what happened". Her father answered: "Probably". And her six-year old asked:

Did it go down your muffler?

What does the word "muffler" mean in this contest? And, why is it funny? I know it's something funny, because she said that it made everybody start laughing again.

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4 Answers

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In Australia, at least, we would use "did it go down your muffler" as meaning "did it go down your windpipe". The term muffler, especially to a child, would be the tube that sticks out of the back of a car (what Americans would call a tailpipe). The similarity between a tube in your throat that helps you breathe, and a tube that allows the car to 'breathe' (or emit noxious fumes, anyway!) is easy to draw.

I know that in my own childhood, at least, none of us would have had any clue that a "muffler" was a scarf.

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Thank you for your comment. I think you're right, I forgot to mention that the woman is Canadian. –  Ed. Brazil Apr 20 '11 at 21:11
    
You're welcome. Could be that this is more of a British-English term, which would explain the similarities. –  Loquacity Apr 24 '11 at 0:20
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It doesn't mean anything. It's just a 6 year old asking a nonsense question. I'm guessing she got confused between tailpipe and windpipe.

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...and a car's tailpipe is connected to the muffler. –  snumpy Apr 20 '11 at 18:12
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It depends somewhat on the date; but I would presume (see below for justification) that “muffler” here means a scarf or similar garment.

The humour (to my ear) is in how the two questions “Did it go down your windpipe?” and “Did it go down your muffler?” are superficially very similar, so a six-year-old might see them as parallel, but very different in meaning: “Were you choking?” vs. “Did your scarf get dirty?”.


This meaning of muffler is unusual today (now it usually means part of an exhaust system in a car, motorbike, etc.), but was the commonest one in the past. One can roughly track the different meanings by comparing her muffler, his muffler, its muffler, the muffler in Google ngrams:

google ngrams graph

(I’ve left the muffler off this graph as it rather dwarfs the others.) This, together with skimming over the Google Books results it’s based on, shows how it’s gone from being (in the 19th century) usually a woman’s garment, to (in the early/mid 20th century) either an auto part or a garment for either sex, to (in recent decades) almost always an auto part.

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I think it's at least as likely she meant muffler in the sense of "scarf".

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Guess that would depend on where the author was. Where I am, no one calls a scarf a muffler. –  Kevin Apr 20 '11 at 19:04
    
Absolutely. You would have to go back at least two or three generations to find people who called scarves "mufflers" in Australia. Perhaps it's just that we don't wear them very often? ;) –  Loquacity Apr 24 '11 at 0:21
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