“I used to want to be a structural linguist, but now I’m not Saussure.”
This was how a former professor of mine once started off the semester—I’m not so sure if class numbers shrunk significantly after that, but students left in groans.
Puns! Throughout history they’ve certainly had their naysayers (who, no doubt, continue to bray out their “nays” until they’re a little hoarse), but for the most part, the punning game has never really lost an “aye”, with puns continuing to be a common creative force in language and literary play over the ages, albeit a slightly undignified one. Not just a mainstay of well-worn, juvenile jokes (orange you glad knock-knock jokes exist?), puns have had a major influence in areas you might not at first consider. For one thing, marketing and advertising (“This is the way the English keep their gin up” (an ad for Gordon Gin)) and even groan-worthy headlines in journalism (New York Post’s infamous “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar” comes to mind) would probably be much less eye-catching, memorable, and pithy without the aid of the humble pun. It’s been said that “a frisky trick of journalism is the headline that shakes a cliché to rattle a metaphor to ring a pun,” to catch a reader’s attention. And somehow, it works, no matter what the critics say about the quality or tastefulness of puns.
Despite puns being found virtually everywhere, and not just in the English language, the socially acceptable response still seems to be overwhelmingly negative or at best ambivalent. Long-suffering sighs and side-eyes are not an uncommon response, even when there’s begrudging admiration, as suckers for punishment go amusingly viral or shamelessly organize events, such as Punderdome, that revolve entirely around the much derided wordplay. The fact is, quite a lot of ordinary people enjoy puns. So why is the pun looked down upon? Is its reputation as an inferior form of wordplay really deserved?
To answer that, we probably should consider what, exactly, a pun even is. Richard Lederer in A Primer of Puns puts it this way: “Punning is largely the trick of combining two or more ideas within a single word or expression. Punning challenges us to apply the greatest possible pressure per square syllable of language. Punning surprises us by flouting the law of nature which pretends that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”
It turns out puns are pretty weird, linguistically speaking, given what we think we know about words and what they signify, as Saussure might have it. In communication, it’s usually desirable for meaning to be as unambiguous and clear as possible. Puns are plays on words, as everyone knows, built upon a deliberate grammatical ambiguity, whether phonological (“Grime doesn’t pay”), syntactic (“Our business is picking up”) or lexical (“A proud past, a perfect present”), among others. At any given time a pun can (and indeed must) simultaneously juggle multiple meanings in one form within one expression. That’s rather precarious.
According to Saussure’s famed structuralist system, in any language, meaningful words are signs consisting of a signifier (the form the word takes, such as the sequence of letters ‘b a t’ to form ‘bat’) and signified (the concept it’s representing, such as a small furry, winged animal, a bat). One signifier to one signified. Neat, simple, logical. That’s not to say there can’t be homonyms (such as ‘bat’ signifying a tool used in sport), but simply put, each sign is supposed to contain a one-to-one relation at any one time, with the mind “naturally discard[ing] all associations likely to impede understanding.” But in the case of puns, ‘bat‘ must represent both a small furry winged animal and baseball gear at the same time, not to mention any other meanings relevant to the context. Two signifieds to one signifier. The signs all point to a kind of lexical rebellion that is not supposed to happen, as clear communication and understanding descend into chaos—and yet something rather special emerges from the wreckage.
No one really knows where the word pun comes from. Catherine Bates in her 1999 paper, “The Point of Puns”, breezily suggests that dictionaries’ limp-wristed treatment of “the word’s obscure lexical background […] support[s] the view that puns are ‘bastards, immigrants, barbarians, extra-terrestrials.’ Puns play with meaning—they give the wrong names to the wrong things—and they disturb the proper flow of communication.” In general, people discount puns as annoying aberrations of how language is really supposed to work. To Bates, the pun is no less than a linguistic anarchist, “a traitor who breaks rank with meaning,” fighting an established, traditional order. Viva la revolución!
It’s a curious thing—it seems no discussion of the pun ever fails to mention how unworthy most of society (in particular high brow culture) considers it, even as people defend or apologize for its usage. Its technical name is paronomasia (in Greek, “equal word”), which sounds more like a brain disorder than anything else. The mere existence of the pun seems to have grated on the poor nerves of certain literary greats. Critics such as Dr Samuel Johnson, following English playwright John Dennis’ sentiments, famously branded the pun “the lowest form of humor.” Ambrose Bierce described it as a “form of wit, to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.” Voltaire was way harsh, describing it as “c’est l’esprit de ceux qui n’en ont pas” (wit for those who don’t have any). Speaking of the French, Patrick Leconte even made an entire movie on the notion of wittiness, Ridicule, in which a young nobleman, fallen on hard times, has to literally live by his wits at the court of Versailles, and is strongly cautioned never to make a pun, because puns are “the death of wit.” (Mind you, according to some, “humour” as a noun only officially entered the French language in 1932, so take that as you will). And as for Saussure, “he had nothing but contempt for “feeble puns based upon the ridiculous confusions which may result from homonymy pure and simple.”
So, we get it, apparently puns are really for the weak (even if they always seem to be the flavor of the month in day to day life). Interestingly, as a side note, Bates muses “how closely this negative attitude toward the pun was related to Enlightenment attempts to correct and stabilize the language,” a topic we’ve touched upon previously, in spelling and grammar rules. Perhaps this is an analogous case, where a linguistic expression or form is widely and popularly enjoyed yet the cultural powers that be have dictated that somehow, because it does not logically fit into a preconceived ideal of how language should be, the use of it might suggest a lack of intelligence, creativity, or dignity. Why else would the pun be considered so square in highbrow circles?
But you may not have noticed how completely puns have infiltrated linguistic life—some examples are more subtle than others. They’re everywhere, if you really look. As it happens, puns aren’t just for casual joking around, sensational headlines, or convincing consumers to buy all the things. Puns abound in literature, in poetry in particular, throughout history. Richard Lederer, for example, discusses how “in the ninth book of the Odyssey, the wily Odysseus tells Polyphemus (the one-eyed giant with twenty vision) that his name is Outis, Greek for “nobody.” When Odysseus attacks Polyphemus in order to escape from the cave, the giant calls to his fellow cyclops for help, crying “Nobody is killing me!” Naturally his friends take him literally and make no attempt to aid him, and Polyphemus falls victim to the first recorded pun in Western literature.”
As much as critics might caution the reader to find Shakespeare great despite his puns, it’s really the freewheeling, rough-and-tumble linguistic anarchy of puns that pushes the richness of metaphor and analogies past their comfortable boundaries in the use of language. Rather than only treading old and obvious ground, it’s puns that are inventive and innovative in language play and can make us see new meanings in new contexts. But puns, most might argue, are only comical frolics, and therefore naturally prone to being undignified low-brow expressions. A farce to be reckoned with, as they say. Nevertheless, somehow Shakespeare manages to insert a few into some of his more serious scenes without anyone raising a skeptical eyebrow:
So in the right hands, it seems, puns can be versatile, eye-catching expressions that make us think, adding poetic colour to otherwise dull, straight-laced sayings. Not all puns are comical or ridiculous, even in supposedly low-brow contexts. How about a sobering ad such as “Cigarette? No thanks. I can live without it” from the American Cancer Society? Would such an ad be more effective or memorable without the pun?
There certainly can be the good, the bad, and the ugly in puns. Puns can be clever but they can also be vacuous if composed purely for the sake of wordplay, regardless of context. Puns taken too far away from a satisfying resolution of ambiguous meanings or analogous forms can fail—in the end a pun still has to make some kind of acceptable sense to the reader or listener. A pun can’t simply be random, a pun is dependent on context and shared knowledge. This point in particular is interesting—for a pun to be good, it has to be understood. Lederer notes “a sociologist once observed that ‘where the common people like puns, and make them, the nation is on a high level of culture.'” This goes against the stereotypical view of the pun as being low-brow entertainment for the people, but it makes sense. In order for a pun and the semantic connections it signifies to be properly understood, both the speaker and the listener have to have similar cultural and educational backgrounds and knowledge to draw from, whether the pun is found in jokes, mass media or literature.
It’s been said that puns are “one of the more complex forms of rhetoric: puns generally require more processing effort than messages where simple forms of rhetoric, for example, rhyme or alliteration, are used.” Take a bilingual pun such as “why do the French need only one egg to make an omelette? Because in France, one egg is un oeuf.” This pun only really works if all participants understand what “un oeuf” means and can relate it to its English soundalike. So much for the lowly pun, but as Edgar Allan Poe once said, “Of puns it has been said that those most dislike who are least able to utter them.” Thus rather than being a low form of wit to which fools aspire, a more imaginative and intelligent linguistic ability is key to producing and understanding puns. The mental acuity needed to be open to novel meanings in unexpected signs, in unexpected ways, is why, for example, many have suggested using examples of puns in the classroom, particularly in language-learning, to engage students and motivate them. Language games involving puns have been used as an aid to improve linguistic memory and expand second language vocabulary. By turning language completely on its head, puns actually fast-track the learner into absorbing a second culture. What a feat.
So love it or hate it, has the humble, much belittled pun actually been a linguistic rebel all this time, throughout history, messing up your meanings for fun and profit? All signs point to yes. Meanwhile, the past, the present, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.
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