Two mushrooms walk into a bar. The bartender shouts “Out with you! No plants allowed!”
One ‘shroom replies “Hey, I’m no plant! I’m a fungi!”
Okay, it’s not only a bad joke, but it should be “a fungus” (singular) for you botanical purists. In any case, I did just check and fungi are not considered plants.
When my colleague Professor Jack Molenkamp, Visiting Lecturer in Business Law and Adv Business Law in the Robins School of Business, requested our word, that old joke reared its fungible head. Yet why “fungible” for a bad joke?
In law or business, a fungible commodity can be exchanged for another without “breaking the terms of a contract,” as The OED patiently explains. We see this at rental-car agencies, when the Nissan Sentra you planned to rent gets replaced by a Toyota Corolla. Under the terms of the rental agreement, you get a compact car in return for the daily fee; no guarantee of color or model gets stated. If one reads the small print, it specifies that another make can be substituted. Thus, anything fungible can be broadly considered “interchangeable” or “replaceable.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, consider the self-inflicted plight of Neal Page, Steve Martin’s character from the brilliant Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Trying without success to get home in time for Thanksgiving, Neal encounters one disaster after another, raging at a clerk that he just wants to get into a [expletive deleted] car. No dice for Neal. He should have read the contract that he threw away in anger; his car is gone from its parking spot but without the paperwork, the rental agency has no legal obligation to provide another fungible asset to replace the one for which he just paid.
Like Neal’s car, a fungible item, or side dishes offered with the entree (without an upcharge) at a restaurant, the subject of a “walk into a bar” joke can be exchanged infinitely for other subjects without changing the terms of the joke. Thus my favorite:
A three-legged dog walks into a saloon in the Old West and says “I’m lookin’ for the man who shot my paw.”
Okay, I’m done. My colleague did not need bad jokes, but he did need to tell me how greatly it puzzled him that his students did not know the meaning of “fungible.” I agree with him: anyone in business or law needs to understand the concept of fungibility.
As with “pagination” last time, I lay the blame on students not being serious-enough readers. You cannot acquire a strong vocabulary without reading. Sorry, students. Since few students read blogs, I again address my audience of faculty and staff. What are the key words in your field that an undergrad should know before getting a degree?
Why does the lack of reading among students (and peers!) irritate as much as, say, Neal’s situation in the rental car lot?
Nominate a word students need to learn by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.
See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.
Photo mashup by me. I prefer the Corolla’s grille and hue.