The trouble with puns

Fantastic essay on puns and their utter, puerile non-necessity, by Joseph Tartakovsky.

I’ve said before that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor. Tartakovsky makes a strong case that punning should get that honor.

In a nutshell:

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. … 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… [Consider] the similitude between puns and fruit flies, both of which die practically the instant they are born, but not before breeding others.

Nonetheless, I found myself pondering the boundary between punning, which I am willing to disdain, and wit, which I esteem. Take, for instance, this exchange between Voltaire and Frederick the Great. Witty, for sure. Punning? Possibly.

Even Tartakovsky includes among his examples one that I’m glad posterity has preserved:

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.”

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18 thoughts on “The trouble with puns

  1. Punning is a way to create emotional distance between the punner and the party to whom he is addressing (I use “he” deliberately, since punners seem all to be male).

    The need to create emotional distance may be why the English, a people renowned for their emotional distance, love most particularly to pun.

    As irritating as punning is, is it any more irritating than what passes for humour (or wit) in much of our contemporary popular culture?

  2. My friend, you have hold of the wrong end of the schtick. Puns are showboating at having mastered a language. They are like dunking in basketball — you are so good that you didn’t just score — you dunked. Behind your head. With one hand. In your face, lesser mortals. This is tough on the guy whose head you just went over, sure, but to those others who could and would also have dunked in this situation, it’s an affirmation that you have mastered the game. In like manner, wretched clenches of puns, the worse the better, communicate to your peers in erudition that you are equally as bad-ass at the English language as they are. That is why the longer you have to stand there deadpan as people struggle to figure out what you just said, the better.

    Besides, if puns were banned, George W. Bush could never have asked Condoleeza Rice “Who is the president of China? ” and received the answer “Yes.” In your face, lesser mortals.

    • “the longer you have to stand there deadpan as people struggle to figure out what you just said, the better.”
      Well said, balcs.

  3. Balcs is right — sort of. I find the Harlow/t pun funny only if miss Harlow had deliberately mispronounced Lady Margot’s name — though with a last name like “Asquith” one ought to tread lightly and carefully. Otherwise, it was just mean. Clever, but mean.

    For me punning is an affliction, not an acquired skill. They just simply appear to me, and they are fun. Low they may be, but who really wants to eat haute cuisine every day but a horse? If you don’t happen to have this particular skill or gift, enjoy the ones you do have.

    Having said all that, puns at their best are offered absolutely straight, dead pan, to be picked up or not, though a slight twinkle in the eye may be forgiven. The backslapping, Didjageddit? Didjageddit? is just a jerk.

  4. Hmm… one of the joys of reading your employers publication is the punny headlines.

    Re the boundary of punning and wit – Tartakovsky mostly limits his critique to puns that depend on homophony, some of which are low cringe worthy crimes, but by no means all. He doesn’t address puns that depend on polysemy – which are often very witty.

    E.g. adapted from Jim Holt’s – wonderful short history of humoUr “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This” Two old friends meet outside a bathhouse. One asks “Have you taken a bath”. The other replies “What? Is there one missing”. Holt uses this as an example of how Jewish humoUr in particular is word and logic based. Also illustrates how puns can be based on playful reframing of multiple meanings and related logical somersaults of meaning.

    Such punny jokes are also best delivered deadpan, at least initially.

    • One punny headline which is still vivid in my memory is from an article on faulty Chinese accounting practices : “Dim Sums”

  5. Fantastic–indeed deep–comments, guys.

    David: Sorry.

    Christopher: I agree with you about the English part. The male parts intrigues me more. Do you think punning is like a peacock tail–ie, a form of display that has evolved for teh opposite (female) sex? (If so, Homo Sapiens women must be on the verge of evolving beyond it.)

    Balcs: Segue from above. I suppose punning does seem to increase among competitive in-groups. Its a signal to your peers. Chest-thumping of a sort.

    Incidentally, did W., ahem, “get” the pun? I once hoped that he himself was punning when he told the French how unfortunate it was that their language had no word for “entrepreneur”. I was disabused.

    Bill: Afflicted, are you? Well, going back to Christpher’s and Balcs’ comments, we’ll have to throw you in a control group and study you. Clearly, this is increasingly sounding evolutionary….

    Jag: Do you think that our captions are punny or witty? (In our science section, admittedly punny. Further corroborating my emerging evolutionary hypothesis….)

  6. To follow up on humour and la difference:

    Re men being funnier than women, in case you haven’t come across this from Christopher Hichens (himself a beneficiary of a fine bantering English education)

    Re verbal dexterity as a form of peacock tail display (a sexually selected ornament) – a suitably punny term might be that men are “blinguists” by nature. In (Mother) Nature sexually selected characteristics generally lead to the male and female being very different – which despite Hichens position, is not true of homo sapiens.

    Finally – though the sample size is relatively small (good enough for social sciences)
    “To a woman, ‘sense of humoUr’ means someone who makes her laugh”
    “To a man, a sense of humoUr means someone who appreciates his jokes”
    “also found a marked difference: ‘When it comes to friendships, men like to be around women who produce humoUr; when it comes to sexual relationships, they only dig women who laugh at their jokes.’

  7. That reminds me of a ‘joke.’ Q: Why don’t women like watching re-runs of The Three Stuooges? A: Because it’s not funny. (did i already use that one? i need some new material)

  8. I pun a lot, especially down the pub.

    I suspect the location is relevant because the mental connections (I presume) we all make whilst listening are more likely to be routed directly to the mouth in this circumstance.

    In other words, I’m guessing that our under-worked neurons continually generate a lot of pun material – which the more circumspect amongst us elect to keep to themselves.

  9. I run an excavator. One day I was digging around a tree, there were mamy roots and I yelled to my swamper, “lets get to the root of the problem” laughing!!! Would this be called a Polysemy or a pun or something else?

  10. Oddly, email updates have just recalled my attention to this thread shortly after my return from a mission to purchase baby supplies at Target, where I strongly insisted that my wife purchase a one-piece baby pajama with an embroidered whale on the front and the legend ‘My mommy whaley loves me.’ So far the baby has remained completely deadpan while wearing it.

  11. Well, I’m more than late to this discussion…but that said, yeah, I’d say I like puns. Like any element of spoken language, I think there are times when they are acceptable and there times when they shouldn’t be uttered at all (out of appropriateness or annoyance of the other party). But they are a form of humor, too. And as with any form of humor, they’re created to conquer or find a way out of a sad situation. It’s strange—when you’re at your lowest point, it’s the cheapest, crappiest jokes make you laugh the most…well from my experience anyway…

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