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Parameter 3: The trigger

Every teasing instance presupposes some sort of trigger, from which the teasing may be derived. This, however, does not imply that a trigger always needs to be clear-cut, or excessively ‘marked’; it is very likely that some teasers only require minor (non)verbal elements in a given situation to construe a teasing instance.

With this in mind, we distinguish five possible triggers for subsequent teasing instances:

A. A primary and verbal trigger. The target verbally communicates something, for which he or she is subsequently teased.

B. A primary and performative trigger. The target acts in such a way, that he or she is subsequently teased.

C. A secondary and verbal trigger. A bystander, not the target, verbally communicates something, for which the target is subsequently teased. The bystander can thus be seen as an ‘instigator’. If the utterance made by this instigator is realized consciously, we interpret the subsequent teasing instance as a joint teasing instance, in which both the teaser and the instigator strive towards teasing the target.

D. A secondary and performative trigger. A bystander acts in such a way that the target is teased for the action of this bystander.

E. A tertiary trigger. A non-animate object is the cause of a subsequent teasing instance. Consequently, no distinction in a verbal, performative or passive component is possible.

In order to further illustrate this categorization, consider the following excerpts from the corpus. Example 8 (from Friends) corresponds with a primary and performative trigger, example 9 (from The Nanny) with a tertiary trigger. In example 8, Joey is convinced that a purse for men (the so-called ‘man bag’) is the rage in Europe, whereas everyone else thinks that he looks rather feminine wearing it. It is Chandler who eloquently points out Joey’s fashion gaffe, by acting as if he is not talking to Joey, but to Joey’s mother instead (Mrs. Tribiani, line 06).

  • (8) FRS/005/013/0295
  • 01 Joey ((enters))
  • 02 < hey;>
  • 03 Chandler hey;
  • 04 Chandler+Ross ((looking at Joey’s ‘man bag’, then at each other in

amazement, then back at Joey))

  • 05 Chandler wa:w you look just like your ^SON;
  • 06 misses tribiani,
  • 07 Joey (-) ^what;
  • 08 are you referring to my MAN’s BAG,

Prima facie, it seems that the trigger in this fragment is the man bag itself, which would result in a tertiary trigger. This conclusion, however, would be incorrect, since it is not the object that causes Chandler’s teasing instance, but Joey’s wearing it instead. It is, in other words, the odd combination of the manly Joey and the girly man bag that provokes Chandler’s teasing, and not the man bag on its own.

In example 9, Fran has taken the children (Brighton, Maggie and Grace) on a trip to the bridal shop where she used to work. While she is chatting with the owner, Brighton and Maggie discover a naked shop-window dummy.

  • (9) TNN/001/021/0102a
  • 01 Brighton ((standing next to shop-window dummy))
  • 02 maggie LOOK;
  • 03 it’s your new BOYfriend;
  • 04 ((knocks on its head))
  • 05 uh it’s got your persoNAlity TOO;
  • 06 Maggie (-) and your EQUIPMENT;

As it is clear from this example, it is the non-animate shop-window dummy that causes Brighton to tease Maggie, and vice versa. The first teasing instance, uttered by Brighton, falls under category E because of a tertiary trigger, whereas the subsequent utterance by Maggie, who reacts to what Brighton just said, falls under category A.

The following table presents an overview of the quantitative results for this parameter, which clearly show that the default trigger of a teasing instance is primary and verbal (category A).

Table 2: Absolute and relative frequencies for the parameter ‘trigger'.






The Nanny






Spin City






Married w. Children


















(62,4 %)

(11,6 %)

(19,4 %)

(1,4 %)

(4,9 %)

With regard to the question through which specific semantic features or operations verbal utterances are preferably turned into triggers that ignite a teasing instance, we point to the use of hyperunderstanding (Veale et al. 2006; Brone 2008, 2010) as one particular and popular process of intersubjective meaning coordination. In hyperunderstanding, a second speaker recycles verbal elements of a previous speaker in an unexpected, non-salient way in order to gain the rhetorical and intellectual upper hand over their opponent. The verbal element, which is picked up and reinterpreted by the second speaker is referred to as the ‘key element’ (Brone 2008). In applying this strategy, speakers present themselves as masters of verbal expression and manipulation, capable of successfully exploiting the semantic potential of their opponent’s utterance.

Example 10 from The Nanny is set around the dinner table, when Fran’s mother remarks that CC seems to be reluctant to eat her tongue. It is the ambiguous value of the word tongue, meaning either the organ or the fish, that triggers Niles’ teasing instance in line 04, after CC’s excuse why she isn’t eating her tongue. At first sight, Niles’ utterance seems fully incongruous in a food-related conversation, until we realize the exploitation of the aforementioned ambiguity.

  • (10) TNN/001/016/0049
  • 01 Sylvia miss babcock;
  • 02 you’ve hardly touched your ^tongue;
  • 03 CC actually I’m on a no tongue DIET;

04 Niles <

o the senator will be so disappointed;>

A more sophisticated example of teasing on the basis of hyperunderstanding is the following sequence in (11) from Married with children, in which two key-elements are in play. Al opens up with a first hyperunderstanding of Peg’s question ‘did you miss me’ in the sense of “aiming (with a weapon) at somebody”. Peg, however, manages to overpower Al by suggesting that he might need ‘a bigger gun’ then. Although the word ‘gun’ has not been used by Al before, it does perfectly match the domain of weaponry, which was introduced by Al’s hyperunderstanding. In her sublime reply, Peg stays within Al’s conceptual domain and manages to set up yet another hyperunderstanding, which trumps her opponent’s initial hyperunderstanding. In her suggestion of him needing ‘a bigger gun’, she metaphorically refers to Al’s allegedly small penis, thus snatching victory from under his nose in this teasing battle.

  • (11) MWC/005/001/0246
  • 01 Peg ((enters))
  • 02 < ^hi honey->
  • 03 he^he,
  • 04 did you MISS me;
  • 05 Al with every BULLET so fa:r
  • 06 Peg (-) we:ll-
  • 07 maybe you need a bigger GUN sweetheart;
  • 08 (-) not that i don’t LOVE your ITTY BITTY one

With regard to the entire corpus, it turns out that in 67 instances (16,6 %), the realization of teasing hinges on the hyperunderstanding of some key-element, thus indicating its relative importance as a socio-semantic strategy in the realization of interactional humor.

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