On the contrary, a fast delivery of a pun is an indication of a quick wit. I think word play is rather clever.
Pun for the Ages
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.Joseph Tartakovsky is a student at Fordham Law School.
31 March 2009
punful punishment or fun
Most newspaper copy editors are the worse culprits for making up bad puns. Hence, an odd article in the New York Times