[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. -bev]
“I can’t define punography, but I know it when I see it.”
Just as Potter Stewart might say, folks, this is “it.” A contemporary reader might be surprised to learn of the role that punning has played throughout the development of human communication, but this book’s ambitious subtitle stakes a claim that journalist and champion punster John Pollack amply delivers upon in The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics. Part punatomy lesson, part historical treatise, and all fun, this work encompasses a wide punorama of the field.
As an undisciplined but devoted (some would say afflicted) aficionado of the genre, I was fascinated by the depth and breadth of John’s scholarly, yet eminently readable, publication. At once entertaining and educational, this engaging book answers fundamental questions: Just what is a pun, and why do people make them? How did punning impact the development of human language, and how did that drive creativity and progress? And why, after centuries of decline, does the pun still matter?
The simplest definition of a pun is:
“to use a word (or words) in such a way as to suggest different interpretations, by exploiting the fact that some words have similar or identical sounds, but different meanings. “
The pun can take many different forms: knock-knock jokes, Spoonerisms, shaggy dog stories, daffynitions, porte-manteaux, transpositions, Wellerisms, visual puns and so forth. The typology includes homophonic (sounds the same: “the excitement at the circus was in tents”), and homographic (same spelling, different meanings: “rumors about sex orgies aboard the ship are all bunk”). Further distinctions include the paradigmatic – contextual knowledge required – and the syntagmatic or self-contained pun.
Many people think of puns as low humor, but such unappreciative attitudes are relatively recent developments. Consider:
Punning both revolutionized language and played a pivotal role in making the modern world possible. In Egypt and ancient. Sumeria it enabled the development of the alphabet and linguistics by linking sound, symbol, and meaning(s). There is even punning in the Rosetta Stone.
Punning once occupied a place of honor and respect in literate society, such as in the literary coffee houses of 17th century London.
Puns enable people to subversively criticize authoritarian regimes while maintaining plausible deniability.
Punning fosters and reflects creativity, and its unlikely associations between disparate things are the essence of human progress – seeing and revealing new connections. You can thank puns for the invention of your iPhone.
Wordplay is a practice that is common, in one form or another, to virtually every language on earth. There is something fundamentally human about our inclination to pun.
Punning is a renegade activity that challenges the status quo by playing on ambiguity and breaking the rules.
Speaking of smart phones, did you hear that Apple has come out with a model that is customized for sailors? It works best for responding in the affirmative: “sent from aye-aye Phone.”
For better and for worse, puns are ubiquitous, appearing in advertising and the media, cute shop names, movie and song titles. Two recent examples of local headlines range from the nuanced (“Raft of Agencies to Pull Junk from… River”) to the heavy-handed (“Dental School Fills Downtown Cavity: Brushes Off Pacific Heights, Chomps Down on 155 Fifth Street”). They’ve flossed their minds!
The urge to pun can be irresistible and often in questionable taste. You start to see them everywhere. At a recent professional seminar on disability access in the built environment, I was secretly wishing the speaker would mention that a person using a wheelchair couldn’t sue an establishment due to lack of standing.
And seriously, who would have predicted a career as a baseball pitcher, rather than a perfectly monikered umpire, for Grant Balfour?
The FDL pun culture, an aside:
A punny thing happened on the way to this forum: I took a stroll down memory lane. Over the years FDL has promoted creative wordplay via such avenues as the Dick Cheney shotgun poetry fests and Michelle Malkin rap competitions, here and here. Firedoglake has offered a safe haven for irreverent punning, although not without occasional groan pains. Blogspot-era old-timers may recall the rollicking Fitz-era pun fests that would occasionally break out in the comment threads. Mea culpa and no lo compundere. (Stalwart FDL contributor Eli was also among the usual suspects, although he may try to deny it: being all serious ‘n stuff now, he rarely takes the bait).
The moments of shared hilarity were epic. It would start innocently enough – usually a reflection on the subject of the blog post at hand or on current events. A couple of parries would establish a theme, “covering” such random, varied and spontaneous topics as foot-ware, boats, dental care, hand tools, body parts, baseball, famous philosophers, vegetables, sewing and garments, mollusks, fish and many more. Classical mythology, historical events, literary references, pop culture, parables, and idioms were all fair game. Of course, it often veered into silliness, but these weren’t necessarily empty calories consumed along the way. Good times.
Back to the present and The Pun Also Rises. Subtle puns appear lightly sprinkled throughout its chapters; if you get thorough a few pages without noticing one you have to pause and wonder if you haven’t missed a well-placed gem. (As a francophone, I was delighted to encounter mention of the contrepèterie, a complex version of the Spoonerism. I’ll note my all-time favorite classic in the comments section).
This overview barely scratches the surface of the richness and variety that John brings to his (p)undertaking. It is truly the redolent work of a pun-gent author. Please join us downstairs where he will further puntificate on the subject.
The pun is mightier than thus: word. Well be here, all afternoon, folks. Try the veal.
John Pollack is a former presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton. He won the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off. Earlier in his career, he wrote for The Hartford Courant and spent three years in Spain as a freelance foreign correspondent writing for many national publications. His previous books include Cork Boat and The World on a String: How to Become a Freelance Foreign Correspondent. He lives in New York City and currently works as a speechwriter and consultant.