In large parts of the United States, a man known to be married to an East Asian woman can expect to be asked, “Does it slant?”
That conversational opener is sometimes followed by the explanation, “Hee hee, I’m just messin’ with yuh.” By acknowledging the irony of the question that has just been asked, this shorts the communicative circuit by making an answer impossible. Functionally, hee hee is equivalent to, “I asked a question about the anatomy of a third party, but the only anatomy I’m actually concerned with is yours. My question, ‘Does it slant?’ wasn’t a whimsical Wallace Stevens query about your wife’s yellow vagina but a demand for your pain. If the pain shows in your face, I’ll know that my demand has been acceded to and you have begun to learn my way of asking.
“Speaking of which, my way of asking is the only way.”
Which implies that yes, a conversation built around a question usually takes the form of a duet, but if the question is Does it slant? the melody and the lyric won’t belong to the same music. The melody of Does it slant? is a vocalise sung in the rising tone of a request for communication, but the spoken lyric says Don’t talk back to me. The tone and the content of the slant question — a question asked in the register of a social context but demanding an answer in the register of a solitary one — are cognitively dissonant, and perhaps that is why the Hee hee usually comes out as a phlegmy wheeze.
Because that’s ugly, we would prefer to keep listening just for the tone. After all, too, everything in language until the downbeat on slant taught us that words form a harmony. So if our partner in the duet should now happen to let a beat pass without Hee hee, we’ll gratefully hope that that nothing will now be the rest of the song. Just that, just the wheezy noise not made while the speaker catches his breath, will be all it takes to give a downbeat to the gratitude and cue us to believe He must mean well.
Unfortunately, the gratitude we feel to the tone won’t be comprehensible to the lyric. Speaking into the silence something hopeful like, “No, it doesn’t slant” will only re-cue the wheeze and the coughing bark: “Slant! Har!” But the echoes of that noise are where we’ll discover something that was in the joke’s libretto all along. To the delight of the barking man, the effect of the discovery will be visible on the surface of our thought, in the darkening face. But behind that surface, in the light of the mind, the discovery itself will be this: in the universal irony of language, words can work against themselves to create anti-meanings, and one of those words is the verb mean.