The Ancient Humour of Puns
The pun has an ancient pedigree, turning up in Egypt, China, and Iraq long before the Christian era. Roman orators Cicero, Quintilian, and others peppered their speeches with puns, believing them to be signs of a nimble mind. And, didn’t Jesus himself create a pun when he said of his disciple Peter “Upon this rock I will build my church?” Peter’s name is derived from the ancient Greek word “petros” meaning “stone or rock.”
“The pun,” as one large cat said to the other, “is the lowest form of puma.” (Culprit unknown).
The Much-Derided Pun
Sophisticated critics have trash-talked the humble pun for centuries. A Roman emperor expressed his distaste for this form of wordplay. Joseph Tartakovsky (New York Times) writes that “It is said that Caligula ordered an actor to be roasted alive for a bad pun. (Some believe he was inclined to extremes.)”
The poet John Dryden pronounced that the pun was the “lowest and most grovelling kind of wit.”
During the Enlightenment, the pun fell into disfavour. The silliness and lack of precision central to this form of humour clashed with the discipline of intellectual enquiry that characterized the epoch. However, we can be sure puns still enjoyed wide popularity in taverns, especially if they contained bawdy elements.
18th century essayist Joseph Addison huffed that it was a good thing that “Arrant puns” had been “banished out of the learned world.” A couple of centuries later, the American writer Ambrose Bierce skewered the pun as a “form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.”
A Complex Form
Is the oft-quoted disdain simply jealousy on the part of those who quietly think, “Rats. I wish I’d thought of that?”
John Pollack is a bit of an expert on the form having written a book entitled The Pun also Rises. He told National Public Radio “The brain goes through some incredible gymnastics to capture the meaning of puns. And if you think about it, it’s incredibly complex. Especially when two words can sound exactly alike.”
The folks who run Pun of the Day suggest “It is this envy in adults that subconsciously causes them to groan upon hearing a pun. As time goes on, it can only be hoped that we adults will eventually learn to react more like a child and less like a groan-up!”
“You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.” (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
Headline writers, particularly in the tabloid press, are pun devotees. Vincent Musetto of The New York Post was a master practitioner. After a particularly grisly murder in a Queens tavern he wrote “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” The same paper skewered musician Ike Turner on the occasion of his passing, leaving his widow Tina to whom he had been physically abusive. The headline on the obituary was “Ike Turner Beats Tina to Death.”
But, the gold medal must surely go to the anonymous genius who wrote about the declining health of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 - “The Reign in Spain is Plainly on the Wane.” Versions of this have since been shamelessly ripped off to describe the declining popularity of King Juan Carlos and the fall from dominance of the Spanish soccer team.
“What does Karl Marx put on his pasta? Communist Manipesto” (Stephen Colbert).
The Technicalities of the Pun
According to the Oxford Guide to Word Games, the French philosopher Henri Bergson described puns as a phrase in which “two different sets of ideas are expressed, and we are confronted with only one series of words.”
Webster says a pun is “the humorous use of a word, or of words, which are formed or sounded alike but have different meanings, in such a way as to play on two or more of the possible applications; a play on words.”
Sigmund Freud, who had a way of taking the fun out of many things by overanalyzing them, opined that punning was a sign of weakness. The punster, he said, creates a humorous play on words as a way of avoiding having to deal with unpleasant truths.
Lighten up, Siggy.
Puns Are Studied by Academics
The technical term for creating puns is paronomasia. It falls into one of the more esoteric areas of scholarship; this is the study of names, or onomastics. There is a Canadian Society for the Study of Names and an official journal - Onomastica Canadiana.
Serious stuff, but made lighter by retired university librarian Lynn Westney from Chicago. Writing in The Globe and Mail Nick Taylor-Vaisy notes that “she presented the paper ‘Dew Drop Inn and Lettuce Entertain You: Onomastic Sobriquets in the Food and Beverage Industry’ to naming societies in 2001.”
She gave examples of the word contortions used by many business owners intent on setting their enterprise apart from competitors. Carl’s Pane in the Glass (Garland, Texas), Florist Gump (Bunbury, Western Australia), and Cycloanalysts (Oxford, England) might be candidates.
Authors Love Using Puns
Oscar Wilde was an incurable punster; the very title of one of his most famous plays, The Importance of Being Earnest, is a pun itself as are many of the lines in it. Wilde also wrote that “Immanuel doesn’t pun, he Kant,” and “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
Shakespeare is said to have included more than 500 puns in his work. Here are a couple of examples:
- From Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” (A play on son and sun).
- In Romeo and Juliet, as Mercutio is dying he says, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”
Not exactly thigh-slappers.
Many of Shakespeare’s puns were coarsely vulgar, but today they sail over our heads unnoticed because they only work if spoken in an Elizabethan accent, which is quite different from modern pronunciation.
For those with a taste for more, The Public Broadcasting System even has a course “The Punny Language of Shakespeare” to help untangle the bard’s poetry.
“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” (Nameless Offender).
“I couldn’t quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me” (Mickey’s brother Anonymous).
The World’s Best Puns
For some, no pun is a good pun and choosing the best ones is entirely subjective.
However, there are some classics:
- U.S. President Harry Truman used to invite people to his home state to sample his wife’s cooking, adding that “Missouri loves company.”
- Dorothy Parker was challenged to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence and came up with “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”
- In Animal Crackers (1930) Groucho Marx said, … “we tried to remove the (elephant) tusks. But they were embedded so firmly we couldn’t budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.”
Edgar Allen Poe gets the last word: “Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are those who are least able to utter them.”
I sent ten different puns to friends, with the hope that at least one of them would make them laugh. Sadly, no pun in ten did. (Unrevealed villain).
A Buddhist monk refused Novocain during a root canal. He wanted to transcend dental medication.
A group of chess players spent an hour in a hotel lobby bragging about their victories when the manager asked them to disperse because he did not want chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.
A vulture got onto an airliner dragging two dead raccoons. The flight attendant stopped him saying “I’m sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.”
- “The Pun Conundrum.” BBC News Magazine, January 16, 2013.
- “Pun for the Ages.” Joseph Tartakovsky, New York Times, March 28, 2009.
- “Dew Drop Inn and Lettuce Entertain You: a Scholarly Look at Restaurant Names with Puns.” Nick Taylor-Vaisey, Globe and Mail, August 23, 2012.
- “Canadian Society for the Study of Names.”
- “Oh the Humanities: Restaurants that Have Pun with their Names.” Mary Vallis, National Post, June 5, 2010.
- “The 47 Greatest Pun-tastic Restaurant Names.” Danielle Dauenhauer, Ranker, undated.
- “The Punny Language of Shakespeare.” Jan Madden, PBS, undated