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Buffalo! (#1281)

Topics/tags: Language

In one of my classes on Friday, the word buffalo came up. Why? We were building hash tables and it seemed that both aardvark and buffalo hash to the same location in a hash table of size 41 [1].

Of course, whenever I see the word buffalo, one of my favorite stupid valid English sentences comes to mind. Perhaps you know it.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Perhaps you didn’t understand it. I know that it took me some time at first [2].

To start with, Buffalo has at least three meanings. We use Buffalo (always with a capital letter) to name a city in upstate New York that tends to attract a decent amount of lake-effect snow. We also use buffalo to mean a species of mammal (large, four-legged, horned). And buffalo is also a verb, meaning to impress, intimidate, or confuse. The sentence certainly does the latter. I believe some folks use buffalo as a shorthand for buffalo mozzarella. We’ll ignore that form.

Now that we have a bit of background, let’s consider the parts of the sentence.

Buffalo buffalo. That seems fairly straightforward. It means one or more of a particular type of large mammal from Buffalo. Let’s notate the four times that noun phrase appears.

(Buffalo buffalo) (Buffalo buffalo) buffalo buffalo (Buffalo buffalo) (Buffalo buffalo) buffalo.

Speaking of noun phrases, English permits a wonderful form of noun phrase which I’d describe as object subject verb, even though that’s not quite accurate. That is, you can put a noun phrase and a verb after a noun phrase and they serve to modify the first noun phrase. For example,

(’blog readers Sam Rebelsky confound) often stop reading.

We could write it a bit more clearly by inserting a who or that.

(’blog readers who Sam Rebelsky confound) often stop reading.

(’blog readers that Sam Rebelsky confound) often stop reading.

We could also write it in the passive.

(’blog readers who are confounded by Sam Rebelsky) often stop reading.

However, that’s long. We’re much better with the five-word noun-phrase.

Returning to our eleven buffalo, we note that we have two noun phrases and a verb. That’s right,

(Buffalo buffalo) (Buffalo buffalo) buffalo …


A certain class of animal from the city of Buffalo who are confused or intimidated by a certain class of animal from the city of Buffalo ….

And that’s just a noun phrase! It can be the subject or object of a verb. Or both.

((Buffalo buffalo) (Buffalo buffalo) buffalo) buffalo ((Buffalo buffalo) (Buffalo buffalo) buffalo).

That is,

A certain class of animal from the city of Buffalo who are confused or intimidated by a certain class of animal from the city of Buffalo themselves confuse or intimidate (the same type of animals).

Wasn’t that fun? And isn’t English a lovely language?

Postscript: For different reasons, I appreciate a pair of aphorisms.

Time flies like an arrow.

Fruit flies like an apple.

Postscript: As you might expect, Wikipedia also has an article on the buffalo sentence, although that version only has eight buffalo. You may wish to consult it for more information.

Although I did not refer to the article in putting together the main body of the musing, I am pleased to see the article note that any nonempty sequence of the word buffalo is likely a valid English sentence, provided it is capitalized and punctuated appropriately.

Did I need to muse about repeated buffalo given that Wikipedia has an article? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, I enjoyed doing so. And that’s what counts. Plus, Wikipedia doesn’t try to hash aardvark and buffalo.

[1] Sam, how did you figure that out?, one pair asked me. It wasn’t very hard. I just kept checking out the hash values of different animals until I found a pair that matched. It might have required 42 attempts. Fortunately, I found a match in many fewer.

[2] And at second. Probably at third, too [3].

[3] No, we’re not playing baseball. However, I’m pretty sure that Who’s on first. Little Cindy-Lou Who, I expect.

Version 1.0 of 2024-04-28.