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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