180 Years of Venn

John VennIn my family, we were rather casual about birthdays and other event days. It wasn’t  unusual to celebrate a birthday, not on the exact day, but on a nearby day. We were fairly poor, so birthdays mostly consisted of a cake and a token present of some sort. (Put it this way: I can’t recall a single birthday present I ever got. We just weren’t that into birthdays.)

But I don’t recall ever not celebrating Christmas or Easter on the day. That may be as much due to my father being a pastor and having to do his thing at church on those days. The religious upbringing — and the strong streak of anti-materialism that went with it — likely accounts for downplaying birthdays and other gift-giving occasions.

Which is all to say that I missed posting on John Venn‘s birthday!

The aggravating thing is that I’ve had a folder of images set aside for over a year (I missed it last year, too). Several times this year, I’ve looked at the files in that folder to remind myself to post this post on the day. (One of these days I’ll get into the habit of posting early and setting up a delayed publish.)

Yesterday, thinking the anticipated birthday was August 14th, I checked the folder again in preparation of the putative post… only to discover the date in question was August 4th. If you heard a mysterious grinding noise in the last 24-hours, that was probably my teeth.

Venn Venn

It was seeing this delightful (and incredibly appropriate) way of mentioning the man’s birthday that engendered this post!

Considering my historical experience with birthdays, it seems somewhat apropos that this post is late. And it’s not that John Venn is some key figure for me; it’s more that he gave us something we’re all pretty familiar with and which has offered some pretty funny visual gags over the years.

If it isn’t obvious by now, John Venn gave us the wonderful Venn diagram!

Ever since, Venn’s diagram has been well-known to students of logic, math and philosophy, but in the image-based era of the interweb, it’s also become the source of some great gags. If you Go Ogle for [funny Venn diagrams] you’ll get an elephant full of results, from the droll to the sublime to the hysterical.

Venn Cecilia

This one may only be funny to us oldsters who remember Simon and Garfunkel. (Apologies if now you can’t get the song out of your head.)

If you understand a Venn diagram, you understand some basic facts about sets and logic. The basic, two-circle Venn presents two sets. (Remember that a set is a maths term for ‘a bunch of things.’) A set has a membership function that determines what’s in the set. The circles in a Venn diagram are labeled to indicate that membership function.

Where the circles overlap we have a union of the sets involved — a logical AND. The overlap part is a new set that contains members of one set AND the other set. What some might not realize is that the area outside the circles is also a set: the set of things not in either of the circle sets.

This logic can be extended to more than two circles:

Venn aliens robots zombies

For a long time, this was my favorite three-circle Venn diagram, but then I stumbled on the one below, and this fell to second place.

And gags aside, a Venn diagram can be a very succinct way to make a point. The one below sought to illustrate how the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy spanned the gamut from highly emotional to highly logical thinking (and that neither alone is sufficient, but both are necessary).

Venn Trek

The Venn of Star Trek!

 Usually the size of the circles has no meaning. On circle set could contain thousands or millions of members while the other contains only one (or even none). The diagram only seeks to show the existence of the sets in question and present their union. The degree of overlap is also symbolic; it doesn’t actually represent the size of the union.

But you can use the size or the overlap to make a point. When I wrote about the differences between men and women, I used the diagram below to illustrate how the two sets (male and female) have almost everything in common, but that there are small areas (such as giving birth or writing your name in the snow with urine) exclusive to either sex.

Venn gender

In fact, the crescents on either side should be smaller. The two circles almost totally overlap, but their centers are just slightly different.

I’ve also used a Venn diagram to illustrate the fallacy of the belief that success is purely a matter of trying. Luck plays a role — and as the diagram indicates — sometimes luck plays the only role (such as for those born into wealthy families).

Venn success

If size mattered (in Venn diagrams, I mean), the set on the left would be huge, and the set on the right would be quite small.

A personal favorite of mine comes from an xkcd cartoon by Randall Munroe (I re-did it on my handy-dandy home image construction set):

Venn geeks nerds

(For the record, a Geek is an expert in some obscure topic and a Nerd is a social misfit. And, yes, I’m in the union.)

I’ve saved my all-time favorite Venn diagram for last:

Venn TARDIS

Why Dr. Who is superior to all the rest (even Star Trek).

So Happy 180th (Belated) Birthday to John Venn and thanks for a great diagram!


As an aside about holidays and presents, my parents considered Santa Claus a “false idol,” so it was always clear in our household that Santa (and the Easter bunny) were definitely not real. There was never a time I believed in Santa Claus, which is why I really don’t get parents who trick their kids that way.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

10 responses to “180 Years of Venn

  • reocochran

    I loved Venn diagrams in college, along with the few times I used them in my teaching! I enjoyed every one of your examples, which prove how much fun Venn diagrams are, W.S.

    I was particularly happy about the Simon and Garfunkel one, since I have really loved their music, could see the point of this easily and laughed at the ‘shaking my confidence daily!’ (I got up and someone had taken my place line could have caused this. Just so you know I don’t have to look up any lyrics on their songs.)

    I know you did not write about Robin W. but I wanted to share with you the funny thing they used on the radio the morning after his suicide. They played Robin singing as Elmer Fudd, “I’m on Fire,” song by Bruce Springsteen. I had never heard it before! It cracked me up. The other thing they mentioned, like at a wake, you want to make people remember the funny stuff, a time that Robin W. said he and John Travolta were friends in the old days. They were crashing an all black wedding, he says, then the two of them started cracking up. They imagined, by sharing this together, when they left, how people were saying in their minds, “Are those lookalikes (impersonators) or is that really Vinnie Barbarino and Mork at our wedding? It cheered me up immensely. Take care, Robin

    • Wyrd Smythe

      They are very useful — for humor or for serious stuff — aren’t they! I’m not at all surprised you liked the Simon & Garfunkel one (I really love it, too — I really cracked up the first time I saw it). S&G were my first “rock group” — my dad liked them, too, and the whole family went to a concert of theirs once. We were up in the third balcony, so I could hardly see them, but it was my first “rock concert” (but not my last!).

      No, I haven’t written about Robin Williams. I can see why he might especially appeal to you, since you share a first name. I do think he was one of the great comedians and one hell of an actor (he played some really good villains in addition to good guys). But I have to confess that personally I never really cared for Mork & Mindy — such broad comedy has never been my cup of tea, plus the show had a fundamental contradiction: Mork’s jokes — supposedly based on his ignorance of Earth customs — actually revealed very subtle understandings of humans and Earth culture (which obviously came from the joke writers on the show). [Yeah, I know… picky, picky, picky! o_O ]

      My favorite aliens on earth comedy show was 3rd Rock From the Sun. Loved that show (although it sometimes had the same flaw regarding comic insight to Earthlings)!!

  • Doobster418

    Very good post about the venerable Venn diagram. And yes, I’m old enough to have appreciated Cecilia!

  • dianasschwenk

    Well Smitty, I never knew the history of the Venn circles, thanks for the background info! FYI – The McCoy, Kirk, Spock one is my favourite on at least two levels!
    Diana xo

  • dianasschwenk

    Well the first is: I love Star Trek
    The second is I also believe emotions and logic cannot stand on their own but they each have merit and together they bring wisdom.
    Cheers!

  • bronxboy55

    “I got up to wash my face
    When I come back to bed
    Someone’s taken my place.”

    I’ve never listened to that song without thinking, “I know I’m replaceable, but could it really happen that quickly? Does she have someone hiding in the closet?”

    Great post, WS. I’ve always loved Venn diagrams, too. They’re like looking at thoughts in shorthand.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks! “Thoughts in shorthand.” That’s good, I like that!!

      I always figured he was hiding under the bed, but in the closet works, too. Knowing Paul Simon (which I don’t actually), it’s probably all metaphorical and poetic and stuff. (On the other hand, who hasn’t broken up with someone only to see them with someone else in a deflatingly short period of time. Maybe not literally in the time it takes to wash your face,.. but close enough, you know?)

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