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Reading chapter 1 of The Crux, there is a joke that I don't understand about the three "Foote girls," who are in their 50s and visiting Mr. and Mrs. Lane. Here is the paragraph in question:

Mrs. Lane received them amiably; the minister's new wife, Mrs. Williams, was proving a little difficult to entertain. She was from Cambridge, Mass., and emanated a restrained consciousness of that fact. Mr. Lane rose stiffly and greeted them. He did not like the Foote girls, not having the usual American's share of the sense of humor. He had no enjoyment of the town joke, as old as they were, that "the three of them made a full yard;" and had frowned down as a profane impertinent the man—a little sore under some effect of gossip—who had amended it with "make an 'ell, I say."

I've bolded the relevant parts. I don't understand why the three Foote girls "made a full yard," or why the "profane impertinent" who jokes, "make an 'ell, I say." If we're talking about measurements, 1 yard = 36in and 1 ell = 45in. Or an "ell" can be a right-angle extension onto a building. But in either case I'm not sure I understand the joke(s), why they're profane, or why there's an apostrophe in "'ell." Does anyone get this?

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    The ell is likely the most ambiguous unit of measure there is. The English ell is 45 inches, the Scottish ell is 37 inches, and the Flemish ell is 27 inches. There are various other localized ells, each with different dimensions.
    – barbecue
    Feb 22 at 22:42
  • @Anne Trotter gives a great explanation. I'd just comment that the writing in the quoted passage is rather choppy with abrupt transitions and short phrases, this makes the whole thing difficult to follow. The apostrophe at the start of 'ell denotes a contraction which proves the 'hell' pun is intended.
    – Charemer
    Feb 23 at 11:36
  • Anne described it already, but I'd just like to add that an apostrophe is always used to abbreviate something, such as in contractions.
    – paddotk
    Feb 23 at 16:07

4 Answers 4

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Foote sisters = three feet = one yard. The implication is likely also there that the three sisters all together at once is a lot to handle, socially and mentally, as they're described as having very different personalities.

The Ell is also a unit of measurement, and in this use is likely being used with the soundalike "hell" in mind; if three Foote sisters (Feet) make a yard, they might also make a similar unit of measurement the "ell" which sounds like "hell" and would be an unkind way of describing them, a clever bit of barely cloaked profanity.

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    It might also seem that they are SOOO much to handle that they aren't just a yard (36") but rowdy(?) enough to be considered more (45" in an ell if that is correct). Feb 22 at 20:35
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    @Chris In the UK, it's common for "h" sounds to be dropped from the beginning of words, making the pun an exact homophone instead of just a soundalike. This missing "h" is what the apostrophe represents. (Sometimes, they also pronounce h's which would be silent in the US, such as the one in "herb"!) Feb 22 at 22:30
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    @QuackE.Duck May be worth adding that in the UK, h-dropping is common only in some accents/dialects/regions.  The Crux was written by an American around 1911, and set in New England; Wikipedia notes that h-dropping “is not generally found in North American English” — does anyone know whether this would be an exception to that?
    – gidds
    Feb 22 at 23:59
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    @QuackE.Duck Please don't delete anything on my account — I think it's interesting extra info.  That's why I wanted to add to it :-)
    – gidds
    Feb 23 at 0:51
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    @gidds H-dropping is not common in American English in general, but it is quite common in all forms of English when immediately following a sonorant consonant, such as /n/. Examples like ‘when he…’, ‘fuckin’ hell’, ‘gave him his…’, ‘peace, love and harmony’ are all very likely to have no actual [h]’es anywhere, even in the US. That said, I too immediately assigned a British voice to the speaker when I read this pun – it just feels so much more British than American. Feb 23 at 12:05
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There's three sisters, and they are named Foote, which sounds like foot. So three Footes, or three feet, is a yard. This is a silly pun which, presumably, Mr. Lane finds more childish than amusing.

To say they make an "ell" has the form of a correction - the surface claim is that a "yard" underestimates the sisters, and the longer measure "ell" is more appropriate. Of course, the yard is not literal (nobody is saying that if you stacked the sisters foot to head they would be a yard in total), which makes it sound like length here is metaphor or euphemism for something. The something is unspecified and vague, and left to the listener's imagination, which is where the humor comes from.

But "ell" sounds like "hell", so it's possible to have another layer of humor. So the second joke sounds like it's merely intensifying the magnitude of the length analogy as above, but on further thought it is revealed that in fact, we are saying the sisters "make hell". There is a common expression in America, "to raise hell", which means to engage in mischief and create chaos. Perhaps in the book's time, "make hell" was also common, or perhaps the person in question simply took artistic license with the phrasing.

So the joke is something like:

  • Three sisters, each named Foote
  • Sounds like three feet, so call them a yard
  • These sisters are quite the characters, so a yard seems an understatement, let's say an ell
  • In fact, they raise 'ell (hell)

Some Americans, to this day, consider it blasphemous or impolite to use words of religious significance lightly, such as "hell", "God", etc. So it could be that Mr. Lane is offended on religious grounds. It could also be that he is simply offended by the impoliteness of using "bad" language. Or perhaps he is just bad at word games, didn't get the joke when it was told, felt embarrassed, and now resents the sisters by association.

Profane is an antonym of sacred, so it sounds like it was probably the first - he believes that invoking a concept of great religious significance such as hell for a cheap joke undermines the seriousness of the religious teaching. But then again, maybe it's used ironically, to poke fun at the near-religious seriousness in which the character (presumably) holds himself.

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Here is how I read your example. Mr. Lane had no sense of humor, and Mr. Lane disapproved of the joke, calling it profane. I would investigate the possibility that the town joke invited the listener to imagine these three women plus nine inches. Are there examples of promiscuity among the women and/or lascivious ogling among the menfolk? How mature-themed is this book? That would clarify the meaning.

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    Right, to me this seems a possibility.
    – Chris
    Feb 23 at 9:28
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I would read the townsman's riposte: "A yard? They make an 'ell, I say." It would then be a double-entendre.

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    Please explain in more detail what the double entendre is.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 23 at 8:54

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