Not lgpolicy, but still fun...

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Mar 28 13:43:01 UTC 2009

Pun for the Ages


Published: March 28, 2009

THE inglorious pun! Dryden called it the “lowest and most groveling
kind of wit.” To Ambrose Bierce it was a “form of wit to which wise
men stoop and fools aspire.” Universal experience confirms the adage
that puns don’t make us laugh, but groan. It is said that Caligula
ordered an actor to be roasted alive for a bad pun. (Some believe he
was inclined to extremes.)
Addison defined the pun as a “conceit arising from the use of two
words that agree in the sound, but differ in the sense.” “Energizer
Bunny Arrested! Charged with Battery.” No laugh? Q.E.D.

Puns are the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral:
whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it
takes to resolve the semantic confusion. Most resemble mathematical
formulas: clever, perhaps, but hardly occasion for knee-slapping. The
worst smack of tawdriness, even indecency, which is why puns, like
off-color jokes, are often followed by apologies. Odds are that a
restaurant with a punning name — Snacks Fifth Avenue, General
Custard’s Last Stand — hasn’t acquired its first Michelin star.

How have the great comic writers regarded puns? Jane Austen puns once,
in “Mansfield Park,” and it serves to impeach the moral character of
the offender. Mark Twain’s first book, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of
Calaveras County,” enamored reviewers with its punlessness. There are
“no contortions of words,” said a London paper. “His fun is entirely
dependent upon the inherent humor in his writings.” The 20th century’s
finest humorist, P. G. Wodehouse, doesn’t use them.

Shakespeare, however, does. Many are bawdy: puns operate, after all,
on double entendre. Yet the poet is guilty less of punning than
wordplay, which Elizabethan taste considered more a sign of literary
refinement than humor; hence “puns” in seemingly inappropriate places,
like a dying Mercutio’s “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a
grave man.”

The true punster’s mind cycles through homophones in search of a quip
the way small children delight in rhymes or experiment babblingly with
language. Accordingly, the least intolerable puns are those that avoid
the pun’s essential puerility. Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin,
was a specialist. He could effortlessly execute the double pun: Noah’s
Ark was made of gopher-wood, he would say, but Joan of Arc was maid of
Orleans. Some Whately-isms are so complex that they nearly amount to
honest jokes: “Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert? Because
he can eat the sand which is there. But what brought the sandwiches
there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred.”

Whately shows us that it is the punner himself who gives his art a bad
name, by so frequently reaching for the obvious. Nothing vexes so much
as a pun on a name, for instance. Yet even these can rise to wit if
turned with finesse. Jean Harlow, the platinum-blond star of the
1930s, on being introduced to Lady Margot Asquith, mispronounced her
given name to rhyme with “rot.” “My dear, the ‘t’ is silent,” said
Asquith, “as in Harlow.” The writer Andrew Lang asked his friend
Israel Zangwill if he would take a stand on an issue. Zangwill wrote
back: “If you, Lang, will, I. Zangwill.”

Why do puns offend? Charles Lamb, a notorious punster, explained that
the pun is “a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the
intellect.” Surely puns silence conversation before they animate it.
Some stricken with pun-lust sink so far into their infirmity that
their minds become trained to lie in wait for words on which to work
their wickedness. They are the scourge of dinner tables and the
despised prolongers of office meetings, some letting fly as
instinctively as dogs bark and frogs croak, no longer concerned even
with drawing applause; they simply can’t help themselves.

I asked a friend of mine, an inveterate punster, whether he punned
while on dates. “Sure, I pun on dates,” he replied. “On prunes and
figs, too.” And well he might, considering the similitude between puns
and fruit flies, both of which die practically the instant they are
born, but not before breeding others.

But low as puns may be, they have been known to appeal to the loftiest
minds. Samuel Johnson hated puns, but his friend Edmund Burke, whose
intellectual powers daunted even Johnson, was notorious for pun-making
(e.g., “What is [m]ajest[y], when stripped of its externals, but a
jest?”) Still, Burke was conscious of his sin, revealed in an incident
recorded in a friend’s journal: “Lord Mulgrave called to Burke one day
at our table with a ‘so, Burke, you riot in puns now Johnson’s away.’
This made good sport for my lord and for the company, but Burke
changed color and looked like Death.”

With Burkean contrition, I confess that in a Thai restaurant not long
ago, following my company’s attempt to order three curry dishes, I
suggested that we not get “curried away.” Punning, it seems, like
every non-deadly sin, is easier to excuse than to resist.
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