Word Nerd: Ode to the pun — ‘the lowest form of humour …’

If you are a reticent punster, be aware that you represent the not-so-silent majority. It has been calculated that two-thirds of the jokes in a typical language collection rely on puns. The humour in language is often deliberate but many have posed this question: To pun or not to pun?

Puns have been much maligned by a host of commentators. Freud described puns as “cheap,” and Oliver Wendell Holmes assailed them as “verbicide.” Many writers in 17th and 18th century England, such as John Dryden, Daniel Defoe, and Joseph Addison believed that the English language approached perfection and that the inherent ambiguity in puns created confusion.

Naturally, no one rushes to his aid, proving that the pun is indeed, mightier than the sword. In the Bible there are many puns on names. In Hebrew, adamah means ground and edom means red. The name Adam may derive from the red earth whence he came, Redman. The name Jacob is derived from the Hebrew word for heel (ah’kev), because he held onto the heel of his older twin brother Esau at birth.

In an article in the Tatler in 1710, however, Jonathan Swift mocked this “affectation of politeness,” because he realized, as Shakespeare did, that individual words possess multiple interpretative possibilities.

Puns have had other defenders. Three hundred years ago, Henry Erskine countered the statement that “a pun is the lowest form of wit” by adding that “it is therefore the foundation of all wit,” and Oscar Levant opined that it is the “lowest form of humour – when you didn’t think of it first.”

Punning has been a language fixture through the ages. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus introduces himself to the Cyclops – as Outis, which means “no man” in Greek. He then attacks the giant, who calls for reinforcement from his fellow monsters with the plea “No man is killing me!”

However, award Jesus the prize for best Biblical pun. We read in Matthew 16:18: “Thou art Peter (Greek Petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra), I will build my Church.” Pope Gregory, one-time guardian of the Rock, punned when he stated that English slaves were Non Angli, sed angeli; “not Angles, but angels.”

The heyday of English language puns was the Elizabethan era. All strata of society enjoyed this type of wordplay, with people differentiating among all sorts of wordplay, such as “pun,” and “double entendre,” to name but two categories, and wordsmiths adhered to a rigid separation among the terms.

For example, according to the OED a pun refers to “the use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or the use of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect; a play on words.”

The OED defines the term double entendre as “a double meaning; a word or phrase having a double sense, esp., as used to convey an indelicate meaning.” It is usually reserved for puns with sexual content such as this ditty: Did you hear about the sleepy bride who couldn’t stay awake for a second?

The creation of puns was facilitated by the many recent borrowings from the Romance languages in the 13th and 14th centuries. Also, the revolutionary changes in English pronunciation at the beginning of the fifteenth century created many new homonyms, the building blocks of puns. Queen Elizabeth I herself puns doubly when she declares: “You may be burly, my Lord of Burleigh, but ye shall make less stir in my realm than the Lord of Leicester.”

Typology of Puns

Puns can be divided into a discrete number of categories. We have homophonic puns that treat words that are homonyms as synonyms.

Example: Why is it so wet in London? Because so many kings and queens reign there.

Another form is the homographic pun that uses words that are spelled the same but possess different meanings and sounds.

Example: Did you hear about the optician who fell into a lens grinder and made a spectacle of himself?

These two forms can be combined, and when this is done it is usually referred to as a homonymic pun.

Example: She was only a rancher’s daughter, but all the horsemen knew her.

Still another genre is the compound pun in which a word or string of words forms another word or string of words.

Example: Where do you find giant snails? On the end of giants’ fingers.

The final type is the recursive pun where the second part of the pun depends on understanding the first part.

Example: A Freudian slip is where you say one thing and mean your mother.

Next month, I’ll look at some of the verbal wit from the greatest punster of all time — William Shakespeare.

Adapted and excerpted from Richler’s book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.

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