Pulling her leg?

2012-06-26 15:10



Pulling her leg?Reader question:

Please explain “pulling her leg”, as in this multiple-choice question below. The correct answer is (b). Why not (c)?

Tom told Andrea that giant turtles had escaped from the city zoo and were eating only left-handed people. It wasn’t until she saw the smirk on his face that Andrea noticed he was just pulling her leg.

(a) trying to hurt her; (b) fooling her; (c) making fun of her; (d) trying to make her fall

My comments:

Answer (c) is not the perfect answer here – because of context. If the question is simply “what does the idiom ‘pulling her leg’ mean?” then you could say (c) is also, more or less, a correct answer.

To pull one’s leg, you see, is to play a practical joke on someone. If a classmate, say, moves up the aisle and begins to walk by you towards the blackboard as the teacher’s bidding, and you suddenly stick out a foot to trip him or her, you are literally pulling their leg – tripping them so that they may fall and make a fool of themselves in front of class.

Or making a fool of yourself if they injured themselves because of fall, in which case the teacher will not let you off easily for making a scene in class (and hurting a fellow student in the process).

Anyways, figuratively speaking, to pull someone’s leg is to play such a joke on them, tell them something that is not true in order to deceive them and make people laugh. Usually the joke is light-hearted, as is the case in the top example. Tom told Andrea an apocryphal tale (a story that is not true) to fool her. If Andrea were gullible enough to believe him, Tom would then reveal that he made it all up just to deceive her and both of them can then share a hearty laugh about it together. That’s all, you see. All good fun. Nothing sinister.

Answer (c) is not the perfect answer in this situation because apparently Tom did not intend to “make fun of” Andrea in any insensible manner. To “make fun of” her, you see, suggests that Top is a bit sinister in purpose, and clearly that is not the case.

Anyways, the correct answer is (b). Tom, the leg-puller, merely intends to tell her a story that is not true, as a joke.

Tom, the leg-puller?

Yeah, leg-puller is the word for someone who pulls legs, a joker. Comedians, for example, are professional leg-pullers. They tell funny stories, play pranks on people to make you laugh and they do it for a living.

Alright. Instead of the usual media examples to enhance your memory of the phrase “pulling one’s leg”, today, I’m going to paste here a skit from Rowan Atkinson, the renowned leg-puller from Britain. Atkinson is these days better known, to the young generation at least, for his movie roles such as Johnny English (as well as Mr. Bean on television), but I think some of his earlier jokes were excellent.

Anyways, here’s an Atkinson skit containing the phrase “pulling your leg”, titled Fatal Beatings, from way back in 1992 – incidentally, this is where and when I first learned the phrase “pulling your leg” – a conversation between a headmaster (played by Atkinson) and Mr. Perkins, father of a student named Tommy:

HEADMASTER: Well now Mr. Perkins, it was good of you to come in. I realize that you are a busy man but I don’t think this matter could be discussed over the electric telephone.

PERKINS: No, no absolutely headmaster. I mean, if Tommy is in some sort of trouble then I want to nip it in the bud.

HEADMASTER: Well, quite frankly, Tommy is in trouble. Recently his behavior has left a great deal to be desired.

PERKINS: Oh dear.

HEADMASTER: He seems to take no interest in school life WHAT-so-ever. He refuses to muck in on the sports field. And it’s been weeks since any master has received any written work from him.

PERKINS: Dear me.

HEAD: Quite frankly Mr. Perkins, if he wasn’t dead I’d have him expelled.

PERKINS: I beg your pardon?

HEAD: Yes! Expelled! If I wasn’t making allowances for the fact that your son is dead, he’s be out on his ear.

PERKINS: He’s dead?

HEAD: Yes... he’s lying up in the sick bay now. Stiff as a board and bright green. And it’s very typical of his current attitude.


HEADMASTER: You see, the boy has no sense of moderation. One moment he’s flying around like a paper kite and the next moment he’s completely immovable. And beginning to smell.

PERKINS: Well, how did he die?!?!

HEADMASTER: Is that important?

PERKINS: Yes, I think so!

HEADMASTER: Well, it’s all got to do with the library you see. We’ve had a lot of trouble recently with boys taking out library books without library cards. Your son was caught and I administered a beating, during which he died. But you’ll be glad to know the ring leader was caught, so I don’t think we’ll be having any more trouble with library discipline. You see, the library card system...

PERKINS: Wait... I’m sorry.... You BEAT my son to death?

HEADMASTER: Yes, Yes. So it would seem. Please, I’m not used to being interrupted. You see, the library card system was introduced....

PERKINS: Well, exactly what happened?

HEADMASTER: Well, apparently the boys were just slipping into the library and TAKING the books.

PERKINS: No, during the beating!

HEADMASTER: Oh, that. Well, one moment he was bending over; the next he was lying down...


HEADMASTER: Ummm... deadish. Mr. Perkins, I find this rather morbid fascination with your son’s death quite disturbing. What I’m talking about is his attitude, and quite frankly I can see where he gets it from.

PERKINS: Well, did you have to beat him to death?!?!

HEADMASTER: Well it was perfectly obvious to me the first day here, I fear. I wondered then as I wonder now if he hadn’t turned out a very different boy indeed if you had administered a few fatal beatings early on.

PERKINS: Are you MAD?!?!

HEADMASTER: I’m furious! In order to accommodate the funeral, I’ve had to cancel afternoon school on Wednesday!

PERKINS: This is preposterous!

HEADMASTER: Yes it is. Or at least it would be... if it were true.


HEADMASTER: I’ve been joking, Mr. Perkins. Pardon me, it’s my strange academic sense of humor. I’ve been pulling your leg.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


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