edgewise adv. on, by, with or toward the edge; You earn more points if you place your letters edgewise.
edgewise adj. having the skills needed to survive or flourish on the edge; She won the game because she was edgewise.
When playing Edgewise, you want to work on the edges of the board because you receive ten extra edge-points whenever the first or last letter of a word you form lies in an outside row or column and the rest of the letters lie in inner columns or rows.
Be edgewise and play edgewise.
"The pun is the lowest form of wit."
"A Pun is a noble thing ... it fills the mind; it is [as] perfect as a sonnet, better."
There are many definitions of pun.1 Some are simple -- for example, "The pun is humorous word play" -- and wrong. The pun does not have to be humorous and it is often more than mere word play. What the better definitions have in common is the requirement that the verbal pun use both the sound and the sense of words to create ambiguity in a given context. Ambiguity means having more than one meaning, interpretation, sense (polysemous) as opposed to vague which applies when there is no single clear meaning. Type, degree and duration of ambiguity are unimportant.2
Sound, sense and ambiguity are the three criteria. The use of words with different meanings in a statement results in two or more possible interpretations. For example: She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her still. In the statement the word still is ambiguous because it can be used as an adverb ("anyway") or as a noun ("distillation apparatus"). Further, the entire statement is ambiguous because it can mean "She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her anyway" and "She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her distillation apparatus."
The word still has multiple meanings, but in and of itself isn't ambiguous. It's use in this particular context results in ambiguity. Context is crucial, but it's not a defining criterion of the pun because context contributes to the meanings of all words in all statements.
Context is one of the reasons puns are sometimes disparaged: insufficient or weak context can result in weak or "bad" puns; a pun's context can cause it to be interruptive (as in a conversation) or inappropriate (as with a humorous pun in a serious passage). These are all discussed below.
Historically, the term pun has been applied broadly to also include word play that exploits only sound or only sense without creating ambiguity: "Eva Lution? Oh, yes," said the publican readily. "She's the woman that says we come from monkeys, ain't she?"3 The humor derives from the fact that the publican misinterprets evolution (the theory that says) with Eva Lution (the woman who says). There is only one way to interpret the statement; there is no ambiguity of sense.
The following classification differentiates among types of puns.
A. Unambiguous pun: word play involving sound or sense without ambiguity
B. Ambiguous pun: figure of speech involving sound and sense that results in ambiguity
A. The unambiguous pun is word play that exploits the sound or sense of words in order to create a (usually) humorous effect without creating ambiguity. In the past other terms such as jingle and quibble were sometimes used for this type of pun.
Hamlet: What did you enact? Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar. I was kill'd i' th' Capitol; Brutus kill'd me. Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there. (Hamlet, 3, 2, 103-106)5
So he call'd upon Lucy -- 'twas just ten o'clock -- Like a spruce single man, with a smart double knock. Now a hand-maid, whatever her fingers be at, Will run like a puss when she hears a rat-tat: So Lucy ran up -- and in two seconds more Had question'd the stranger, and answer'd the door.6
B. An ambiguous pun is a figure of speech that exploits the fact that words sound similar but have different meanings in order to create ambiguity (which may be only momentary). Like all figures of speech the ambiguous pun seeks to achieve an effect, such as humor or irony, that goes beyond simply calling attention to itself.
One might call the Edgewise icon an exclusive, statement, visual pun. The entire image is ambiguous and can be seen two different ways but not both at the same time.
Many people believe that there is only one kind of pun and, if it's well-constructed, it makes us smile or laugh, but the unambiguous sound-pun and the ambiguous, inclusive, statement-pun are as different as the limerick and the sonnet. The various types of puns are discussed further below.
Is it really? At the end of the 16th century and into the middle of the 17th century word play, including punning, was highly valued and there was much interest in producing and classifying the various types. But starting only 100 years later and continuing to today critics have deprecated the pun. The reasons for this are discussed below.
Generally, the unambiguous pun is the least sophisticated and the type most often disparaged. It's important to keep in mind that sophistication is not synonymous with quality and that some puns are meant to be "bad." Any particular pun may be strong or weak, appropriate to the context or not, clever or labored.
Puns range from corny and badly constructed word plays to rich, complex tropes. The low status assigned to the pun is unwarranted.
Puns are sometimes peculiar to the time and place of their creation. We may not "get" a pun because, for example, it exploits an idiomatic expression or was directed at a specific audience.
William Hogarth, painter and engraver, sent an invitation to a friend to dine with him. On it were drawn a knife, a fork, a pie and three Greek letters: . Because his friend could read Greek, he understood that he was being invited to "Eta Beta Pi."7
Give you a reason on compulsion! if reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion (The First Part of Henry the Fourth, II, iv, 238-40). The pun is on reasons which was then pronounced like "raisins." Falstaff will not give raisins or reasons, even if they are as plentiful as blackberries, if compelled to do so.
Lord help you, Maria, full of grease, the load is with me!8 This is said by one of the women washing clothes in a river in the "Anna Livia Plurabelle," section of Finnegans Wake. James Joyce is parodying the beginning of a Catholic prayer: "Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee." The women are washing their loads of "greasy" clothes. The pun on grease is evident if pronounced with an Irish accent as "grace-y."
In Flann O'Brien's novel The Poor Mouth an inspector asks the Old-Grey-Fellow how many children live in the house. He replies, "Twalf, sor!"9 Sor in Irish means "louse" so the answer is both courteous (Sir) and insulting (Sor). A pun involving two or more languages is called a macaronic pun.
Strictly speaking, there are only 325 days in the year, because forty of them are lent and never returned. This pun from an early 19th-century British book of conundrums is easily understood today, but the following pun from the same time requires that you know that purl was a popular drink made with hot beer, gin, ginger and sugar: A score [of hunters] within the purling brook,/ Enjoy'd their "early purl."10
In addition to the scheme at the beginning of this essay there are several other ways of classifying puns. They can be arranged by the sound of the punning words. There are puns which stand alone as single statements (one-liners) and those which require a larger context. They can be divided into those which contain a single word with multiple meanings and those which contain more than one similar-sounding words. All of these are discussed below.
One way to organize verbal puns is by sound and spelling. Frequently they are divided into three types.
(1) A homophonic pun, the most common, uses words that sound alike or similar but are spelled differently and have different meanings such as you and ewe.
Atheism is a non-prophet institution. In George Carlin's pun profit and prophet sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Notice that only one of them is explicitly stated. This is an inclusive statement pun because it means that atheism doesn't make a profit AND that atheism doesn't have a prophet.
(2) A homographic pun uses words that are spelled the same (and, therefore, look the same) but have different sounds and meanings: "a strong wind" (moving air) is pronounced differently than "wind the rope" (to coil or wrap).
Playing a bass is not easy. Pronounced one way bass is a musical instrument; pronounced another way it's a type of fish. Because a word cannot be pronounced two different ways at the same time, homographic puns are usually visual rather than oral and they are less common.
(3) A homonymic pun uses words that have different meanings but sound alike (homophonic) and are spelled the same (homographic).
Playing a bass is not easy. There is a homonymic pun on playing which can mean "making music," "performing a role, pretending to be" and "allowing a fish to tire itself before reeling it in." Thus, the statement can mean: making music on a bass fiddle (or bass fish) is not easy; acting the role of a bass fish (or bass fiddle) is not easy; working a bass fish (or bass fiddle) until it is tired enough to reel in is not easy. This is an inclusive statement pun; it means this and that (and maybe the other thing).
In America, you can always find a party; in Soviet Russia, Party always find you!" This inclusive word pun is based on the homonymic word party which can mean a social gathering or a political organization. The Russian reversal or "In Soviet Russia" joke was created by Yakov Smirnoff. It is also an example of antimetabole, a repetition of words in successive clauses in reverse grammatical order: "I eat what I like and I like what I eat."
(4) There are also several kinds of visual puns. In languages which use non-phonetic writing (such as Chinese) the ideographs can form visual puns. Others use some sort of visual element (photograph, drawing, logo, etc.) to create a pun or augment a verbal pun. For example, a picture of a baby chicken standing in a bowl of soup yields a pun on chicken soup and chick in soup. For more on this type of pun see Visual Puns.
A pun may contain a single word with multiple meanings or more than one similar-sounding words with different meanings. That is, the word the pun is based on may or may not be repeated.
This is a useful way of looking at puns because when we read or hear a statement we don't mentally classify words as homophones, homographs or homonyms. We don't care if one word has two meanings or if two words with different meanings sound and are spelled the same.
The breadbox was empty because I didn't have enough dough. In this inclusive statement pun dough, is not repeated. It has two meanings: "money" and "the mixed ingredients used to make bread." When the punning word is not repeated, some other word(s) in the statement signal that it may be a pun -- in this case, breadbox. If the statement were "the cupboards were empty because I didn't have enough dough," there wouldn't be a pun on dough.
That smug young grocer's arts engross her 'art.11 In this line from a panto there is a sound pun on grocer and engross her and another on arts and 'art (heart).
The repetition of words in a statement calls attention to the words and that is the point of an unambiguous sound pun; you are meant to notice the repetition of sounds and respond with laughter or at least acknowledgment of the creator's cleverness.
But the repetition of words does not mean a pun is merely an unambiguous sound pun.
To England will I steal, and there I'll steal (Henry the Fifth V, i, 85). In this inclusive word pun the first steal means "to sneak away" and the second means "to rob." The repetition is not meant to provoke laughter but to emphasize the speaker's deceptive and surreptitious intentions.
Crazy and crack'd they [windows] be, and wind doth blow Through transparent holes in every pane, Which Dan, with many paines, makes whole again 12
First, there is a clever bit of humor about broken windows having "transparent holes." Second, there a sound pun on holes and whole. Third, there is an inclusive statement pun on pane and paines. That is, the last line means two things at the same time: he will repair the windows with "many paines" (much labor) by replacing "many panes" (of glass).
It's easier to recognize a (possible) pun when the words are repeated, but the repetition does not automatically mean that the pun is merely word play.
In 1719 Thomas Sheridan's humorous, mock treatise titled Ars Pun-ica, sive Flos Linguarum: The Art of Punning was published anonymously. In addition to pseudo-scholarly definitions of the pun and its history and citations from Latin, Greek and Hebrew authorities, it contains thirty-four rules for the "Farther Improvement of Conversation, and Help of Memory." These are, however, variations on the complaints against punning; that is, they tell us what we should not do. For example, Number 11, the "Rule of Repetition," states that you "must never let a pun be lost, but repeat and comment upon it, till every one in the company both hears and understands it." Several of these ironic rules will be referred to later.13
Number 36, the "Rule of Sound is when the pun consists in the sound of the words only, without any relation to the thing signified" (emphasis added)14. This is the unambiguous sound pun, the type most often disparaged; it is word play that exploits only the sounds of words in order to create a (usually) humorous effect without creating ambiguity. For example, during "A Storm at Hastings "Bow-windows and bell-glasses bore the brunt, --/ No sex in glass was spared!" The puns are on beau and belle.15
Broadly speaking, word play is the manipulation of words to achieve an effect, but the term is usually reserved for the clever or amusing arrangement of words primarily to call attention to themselves. Thus, it is often referred to as "mere" word play which is not meant to be euphonious, to make comparisons or show contrasts. For example, a deliberate spoonerism's only reason to exist is to be noticed and amuse the listener/reader. The point of a tongue twister is to note the arrangement of the words and the difficulty of quickly saying them aloud. The end-rhyme of light verse (for example, Ogden Nash's) is often "mere" word play. Like end-rhymes, sound puns do not have to be spoken to be noticed; we hear the sounds "in our heads" as we read.
The sound pun is almost always constructed so as to call attention to itself. In fact, writers often used italics to ensure that the pun would not be missed: Oh, horror and despair! dis pair get married!16
Frequently the sound pun is based on one word embedded in another: A single stag had caused a whole/ Stagnation in their trade.17
One of the distinguishing characteristics of pantos (pantomimes) and burlesques is outrageous punning.
Atkins [a sailor]: Torment! Why this tar meant to be polite. Jenny: You're too polite, much too polite, I'm loth With such a person to p-light my troth.18
Tar meant and p-light are italicized; the actors emphasize the words in order to help the audience to notice the sound puns on torment and polite. The humor is derived in part from ridiculous sound puns which are meant to be "bad."
from Duck Soup, Marx Brothers, 1933:
Margaret Dumont: This is a gala day for you. Groucho: Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more.
Friday sees some natives coming toward him and Crusoe:
Friday: (in a state of feverish excitement) One, two, tree men! Crusoe: (alarmed) I'd bolt at once outright, But I am in one too tre-men-dous fright Let's see, this day's a Friday -- horrid thought! 'Twill truly be a fry day if we're caught.19
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. The word buffalo has three meanings in the statement: "a city in New York state," "an animal" and "to trick." Substitute Binghamton for capitalized Buffalo, substitute bison and trick for the others and add commas: "Binghamton bison, Binghamton bison trick, trick Binghamton bison." Paraphrased it says, "Bison from Binghamton, that [other] bison from Binghamton trick, [also] trick [other] bison from Binghamton." There is no ambiguity after the appropriate definition has been assigned to each instance of buffalo. The nouns and the verb simply sound identical.20
In his protest days, Mahatma Gandhi walked everywhere. From the North of India to the South, he traveled without shoes. He didnít brush his teeth so his breath was pretty bad. Because he walked so far and did not eat much, he became thin and physically weak. All in all, he was a super-calloused, fragile mystic, vexed with halitosis! The last line brings to mind the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from the 1964 movie Mary Poppins. Because supercalifragilisticexpialidocious has no meaning, there can be no ambiguity.
A man wants to see his sweetheart across a lake and says to the boatman: This lover would to his fond mistress go,/ So, to my lovely Juliet, Row me oh!21
The trowsers [of my militia uniform] put me in mind of two respectable towns in France, being Too-loose and Too-long!"22
A leolump [egoist] you cannot shame; His head is like a fly's; His brain is small, but all the same, He has a thousand "I's."23
War does not determine who is right -- only who is left.
The unambiguous sense pun depends upon words that are commonly associated or have related or contrasting meanings; sound is unimportant; there is no ambiguity. Some would say that there is no such thing as a "sense pun" because all puns are based on sound. However, the term pun (and its synonyms) has been, and continues to be, applied to word play that does not involve sound.
In these lines from Alexander Pope's The Dunciad (Book IV, 187-88) the contrast is between right and wrong rather than right and left.
May you, may Cam, and Isis preach it long! The RIGHT DIVINE of Kings to govern is wrong.
The short fortune-teller who escaped from prison was a small medium at large. In this contemporary example there is no similarity of sound; the pun depends upon sense: short and small, fortune-teller and medium and escaped and at large.
All poets' wit hath every writ/ In dog-rel verse of hounds.24 Embedded in dogrel is dog and hounds are dogs. If the line were "In dog-rel verse of dogs," then it would be a sound pun.
Huggins, a very cautious rider, was [r]esolved, by going very slow,/ On sitting very fast.25
A group (field) of mounted hunters are chasing a stag: The field kept getting more select,/ Each thicket served to thin it.26
What did the onlookers say when the pickpocket was apprehended?
The Bookseller: Bind him over. The Sadler: Pummel him. The Farmer: Thrash the dog.27
Sometimes a statement combines a sound and sense pun: "For the moment will come when such comers must go."28 Come forms a sound pun with comers and a sense pun with go.
An ambiguous pun is a figure of speech that exploits the fact that words sound similar but have different meanings in order to create word or statement ambiguity.
Figure of speech is a broad term that refers to the manipulation of words (word play) to achieve an effect that goes beyond simply calling attention to the manipulation. There are two types.
(1) Schemes are arrangements of words in ways that depart from their usual order without affecting their meanings: repetition such as polysyndeton ("I shopped and I cooked and I ate and I slept."); omission such as parataxis ("I shopped, I cooked, I ate, I slept"); inversion ("Whose woods these are I think I know" instead of "I think I know whose woods these are.")
(2) Tropes are the use of words so that they depart from their usual meanings without changing their usual order. The trope results in a change or twist in meaning which may be from literal to literal or literal to figurative There is at least some semantic ambiguity. When we say that "he is as calm as a cow," the meaning changes from literally (he is calm) to figuratively (calm as a cow). The change can be ironic: "he is as calm as a chipmunk."
Like other tropes there is a change or turn of meaning in an ambiguous pun. It exploits a difference between the obvious contextual definition of a word and other meanings, associations, connotations. It may be literal to literal.
When they [duelists] were dead, they thus should have/ Two seconds still to live.29 Seconds refers to both a short time and the duelists' attendants. Neither meaning is figurative. It's ironic that when the duelist die they will have two seconds (attendants) still alive.
The change of meaning can also be literal to figurative. The furniture makers' contract remained on the table. The contract literally was on the table and figuratively it remained open to negotiations (or vice versa).
The pun is too often dismissed as mere word play, but an ambiguous pun is a trope. However, unlike other tropes, the pun also requires a similarity of sound. Both sense and sound are involved.
Because there is a change in meaning, when we encounter tropes there is initial uncertainty; we recognize that some words in the statement or the entire statement may have multiple meanings. There is a brief moment when we have to work out the possibilities and decide if none, one or all are acceptable. When we hear the simile "he cried like a baby" the initial uncertainty is very brief because it is a cliche that we have heard many times. When we hear the simile "the snow fell on the lawn like pepper on mashed potatoes," we first have to figure out what "like pepper on mashed potatoes" means and then decide whether dark pepper falling quickly on white potatoes is an acceptable comparison to white snow falling on a dark lawn.
A pun is constructed so that there is initial uncertainty, usually because of the sound of the word(s): we pause ever so briefly recognizing that the repetition of two or more similar words with different meanings or that one word can have multiple meanings. Can the multiple meanings of one word be substituted? Can the meanings of two or more words be exchanged?
She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her still. The proximity of whiskey and still signal that there may be a pun. We note that in the context of the statement still can have two meanings. Can one be substituted for another? "She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her anyway." "She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her distillation apparatus." The entire statement is ambiguous because both interpretations make sense.
There are two types of ambiguous puns: the word pun and the statement pun.
A statement pun is one in which the exploitation of sound and meaning results in the entire statement being ambiguous; it can be interpreted in at least two ways.
With the exclusive statement pun only one of the interpretations can be true at a time.
Farmer Jones: "My bull is over seven feet tall."
Farmer Smith: "That's a lot of bull!"
Farmer Smith either believes Farmer Jones and is amazed or doesn't believe him and dismisses his claim. The statement is ambiguous but both interpretations can't be true at the same time.
The exclusive statement pun is less common than the inclusive statement pun.
With the inclusive statement pun two or more interpretations can be true at the same time.
In "A Quibbling Elegy on Judge Boat" (1723) Jonathan Swift creates an extended metaphor equating a dead judge named Boat to a boat: he was "tost in the waves of this tempestuous world" and "with water [dropsy] fill'd, he could no longer float" and he "has sunk." The punning title is ironic: this "elegy" does not mourn the death of the judge. The speaker of the poem says:
A post so fill'd on nature's laws entrenches: Benches on boats are placed, not boats on benches.
He puns on two sounds and four meanings. It's an inclusive statement pun because (obviously) benches are put in boats not the other way around and because Mr. Boat should not have been made a judge -- placed on the metonymic bench (in the court). Both, says the speaker, violate nature's laws (physical and moral). There is also a sense pun on the somewhat antonymous fill'd and entrenches ("dig a trench").
I used to be a physician, but then I lost patients. Here the similarity in sound and difference in meaning of two words (lost and patients) are exploited. In the statement lost can mean "decrease in number," "fail to prevent death," "no longer know the location of," and "no longer possess or have." (1) If "patients" stop coming to the office or (2) you can't keep them alive or (3) you can't keep track of them, then you might have to give up being a physician. Further, you might quit the profession if you simply lost "patience" with the complaining patients, the paperwork, and so on. In fact, you might have given up practicing medicine because you lost patients and lost patience.
Question: What do you feed a punning dog? Answer: Quibbles. There is a sound pun on quibbles ("puns") and kibbles ("pet food made of grain pellets"). We may miss the inclusive statement pun on feed because the other is so obvious. In the statement feed means "provide food to" or "supply something such as a line or an answer." You could provide a punning dog with kibbles for it to eat and quibbles (puns) for it to say. Both makes sense (in a world where dogs are capable of speaking and understanding language) at the same time.
"You are just too pungent!" the blushing maiden cried. "You are not fair; 'twas made in jest," replied the punning gent. There are two sound puns: the punning gent is "pungent" and maiden (cried) and made in (jest). The pun is on fair, meaning "pale," "attractive," "just" or "evenhanded." Where the gent is "just too" (an intensifier: simply, completely), the maiden is "not fair" (not just). The blushing maiden is not pale and she is not just. This is a inclusive statement pun because both interpretations are correct at the same time.
The excitement at a circus is in tents. The excitement is both "in tents" and "intense."
A son sets up his father by asking a punning question.
"Were ye ever sun struck?" the son asked.
"No," said the father.
"Well then," said the son knocking his father to the floor. "You can say that no longer!"30
The son deliberately constructs the question ("Have I ever hit you?") so that his father will hear it as being asked if he has ever been sun struck, a substandard, past-tense form of sunstroke. The son's question is an inclusive statement pun; in effect, he asks two questions simultaneously.
A word pun is one in which the multiple meanings of one or more words results in initial uncertainty that is resolved to an unambiguous statement.
With the exclusive word pun only one sense of the ambiguous word is used in the statement and the other(s) is implied.
The delicatessen is sandwiched between two stores. One of the definitions of the verb to sandwich is "to put something tightly between two other things"; as a noun it is "two slices of bread with a filling between." Delicatessens sell sandwiches. The delicatessen is like the filling between two other stores. So, the sandwiched store that sells sandwiches is itself part of a larger kind of sandwich. The statement is not ambiguous; only the word sandwich is. Many exclusive word puns work this way. One word (sandwiched) sounds like another word (sandwich) whose meaning is significant in relation to another word in close proximity (delicatessen) which establishes a context for the pun.
Who discovered radium?" asked Marie curiously. Curiously suggests Curie because of the proximity of radium and Marie. The unambiguous sound pun sometimes depends upon one word sound being embedded in another (see stag/stagnation above), but the meanings of the two words are irrelevant. In this case the embedded sound evokes another word and the humor depends upon that word's meaning.
Three brothers went out West to establish a cattle ranch, but couldn't think of an appropriate name for it. So they wrote to their father back East, and he replied, "Call it Focus, for that's where the sun's rays meet.31 The pun is based on three homophonic words: the ranch should be called Focus, where the "sun's rays meet" because those three words sound like "sons raise meat." The entire statement does not remain ambiguous after the multiple meanings of the words are understood.
Pleasing the Public by Lois Carmen Denominator. The sardonic pun is on the author's name which sounds like "lowest common denominator": in order to please people you must address their simplest shared interests.
With the inclusive word pun multiple senses of the ambiguous word are used in the statement.
Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine. Two meanings of the word change are used in the statement, but the statement itself is not ambiguous. This pun might also be called a paraprosdokian, a figure of speech in which the latter part of a statement does not fulfill the expectations set up by the first part. For example, "Take my wife -Ė please!" (Henny Youngman). If the word change were repeated ("Change is inevitable, except change from a vending machine"), it would be an example of antanaclasis (see below).
Most inclusive word puns take the form of syllepsis or antanaclasis.
Miss Bolo rose from the table considerably agitated, and went straight home in a flood of tears, and a sedan chair.32 This form of the inclusive word pun is called syllepsis (or sometimes zeugma): a word or phrase is grammatically related to other words or phrases in a statement, but the relationships have different meanings. The ambiguity results from using the word in in the adjectival prepositional phrase "in a flood of tears" (modifying Miss Bolo) and the adverbial prepositional phrase "in a sedan chair" (modifying went). The entire statement is not ambiguous.
Vandrift can't find the dispatch-box in which are important financial papers. Wentworth tells him: It'll turn up in time. Everything turns up in the end -- including Mrs. Quackenboss's nose.33 The pun is based on the multiple meanings of turns up and in the end.
The wife of the Superintendent of the Power Works says, "I have twice suffered all the disagreeables of escaping from nothing at all [false fire alarms] in my night-dress, exposed to rheumatism, and the natives of a low neighborhood."34
Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,/ Dost sometimes Counsel take -Ė and sometimes Tea.35
The stately mansion was covered with heavy flowering vines, also with heavy mortgages.35a
My heart is full -- my trunks as well;/ My mind and caps made up.36
There is a certain type of woman who'd rather press grapes than clothes.
There is a certain type of man who'd rather press lips than grapes or clothes or weights.
She held his hand and her breath.
He bolted the door and his dinner.
Politicians and diapers should both be changed regularly and for the same reason.
A tear stood in the good woman's eye as she concluded [speaking]. Then, presumably tired of standing, it fell and buried itself in a basin of soup.37
Your argument is sound, nothing but sound. Nothing but sound ("meaningless") contradicts is sound ("meaningful"); this results in an unambiguous ironic (even sarcastic) statement. This form of the inclusive word pun is called antanaclasis: a word or phrase is repeated in a statement with a different meaning each time.
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men./ Put out the light, and then put out the light (Othello, v, ii, 6-7). The first put out the light means Othello will extinguish the candle and the second that he will kill Desdemona. (In the following lines he says that if he changes his mind he can relight the candle but he will not be able to bring her back to life.)
I can see you right now in the kitchen, bending over a hot stove, but I can't see the stove (Groucho to Margaret Dumont, Duck Soup, Marx Brothers, 1933). He can imagine/conceive of her in a kitchen but not perceive/view the stove (because she is too large).
You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much.
The piece de resistance yesterday was beef, resistance indeed so strong that it defied your teeth....37a
If you aren't fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm. 38
He is a member of no learned profession, and is in possession of no degree, save a very considerable degree of quiet impudence and self-possession.39
I was removed from Mr. Steinkopff's to the University of Gottingen, and at once the eyes of six hundred pupils and the pupils of twelve hundred eyes, seem fastened upon me... .40
"There's some is quick an' others is quicker, But those that's quick is frequent dead An' those that's quicker is quick instead." An' havin expounded these simple laws, Hallowell chaws an' chaws an' chaws.41
Puns are often used commercially for names or slogans because they are funny, striking and easy to remember. "Kane is Able" is displayed on the back of Kane Trucking's trucks. For years StarKist Tuna ended its Charlie the Tuna television advertisements with the line "Sorry, Charlie. StarKist doesn't want tuna with good taste; StarKist wants tuna that taste good." The names of hair salons are frequently puns: Herr Kutz, Shear Perfection, A Cut Above and The Big Tease. Other businesses use punning names such as Dew Drop Inn and ArtSea Gallery and Goods.
Commonly puns are incorporated into one person's response to a statement by another.
Gwendolen: I had no idea there were any flowers in the country. Cecily: Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.42 Mrs. Cregan: She has a purse an' all have liked that knew her. Hardress: I have personal aversion to her.43 Prisoner 1: The gallows cart goes by quickly. Prisoner 2: Ay, at breakneck speed.
Question jokes often are based on puns.
Why are icicles like listeners? Because they are eavesdroppers.
Why is a hatter the most respectable of tradesmen? Because he serves the heads of the nation.
"Quid est hoc?" asks the schoolmaster. "Hoc est quid," replies the student.
This form is called "The Socratick Rule" in Sheridan's The Art of Punning; its purpose is "to instruct others by way of question and answer":
What is the reason that rats and mice are so much afraid of bass violins and fiddles? Because they are strung with cat-gut.44
Another kind of punning question is the knock-knock joke in which the pun is always based on the outside person's first response.45 They are almost always exclusive word puns.
Knock. Knock. Inside: Who's there. Outside: Ida. Inside: Ida who? Outside: I'd a come in but the door's locked. Knock. Knock. Inside: Who's there? Outside: Boo. Inside: Boo who? Outside: Don't cry. It's only a joke.
There are thousands of one-line jokes which incorporate puns.
Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
Time flies; you cannot; they fly so fast.
What is an "ig"? An Eskimo house without a "loo."
Sometimes they involve rearranging the words in a well-known phrase or quotation. You must be familiar with the original statement in order to recognize the multiple meanings of the words.
Dieting: A waist is a terrible thing to mind. [A mind is a terrible thing to waste.]
Feudalism: It's your count that votes. [It's your vote that counts.]
Wellerisms are named for Sam Weller a character in Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers. They are made up of a well-know phrase, quotation, proverb or something similar, a speaker and a qualifying statement that shows the first part in a new, usually humorous, light:
Business first, pleasure arterwards, as King Richard the Third said wen he stabbed the t'other king in the Tower, afore he smothered the babbies"(Chapter 25).
Wellerism are some times puns:
"I see," said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.
"I'm delighted," as the firefly said when be backed into the fan.
Similar to the Wellerism is the Tom Swifty. A quotation is attributed to someone and this is followed by a pun on the verb or modifying adverb. The name apparently derives from the Tom Swift books whose author tried to avoid the commonplaces of "he said" and "she said."
"It's freezing," Tom muttered icily.
"All Romans must obey me," said the Emperor augustly.
Puns based on book titles (and authors) are common:46
Politeness by Hugo First
Oiling Cricket Bats by Lynn C. Doyle
Voltaire, Volney and Volta in 3 Vols.
Cursory Remarks on Swearing
Tadpoles; or Tales Out of My Own Head.
The satirical magazine Private Eye publishes fake letters; authors' names are puns on the contents:
... Last year we all had turkey at Christmas, apart
from my husband, who opted for something more exotic.
There is a type of non-pun, one-liner based on punctuating direct address:
It's almost suppertime. Do I have to cook mom?
Mom is either the thing to be cooked or the person being addressed. As the witticism on a T-shirt says, "Commas save lives." Two more examples:
How many did you buy? I bought three gentlemen.
How do you know it's there? I peeked inside Bob.
Sometimes these one-liners are puns:
Is the party over? No, dance on mom.
It's getting late. Should we leave Mary?
Dance on is an idiom meaning "continue dancing" and a verb and preposition meaning "dance on top of." Leave means "leave behind" or "depart."
Another short form is the pseudo-etymology. History is based on "his story" (the story of men written by men). Jonathan Swift in "A Modest Defense of Punning" (a response to Alexander Pope's "God's Revenge Against Punning") speculates that the word pun might come from the Latin Ponticulus Quasi ("pun tickle us"). He claims in "Discourse to Prove the Antiquity of the English Language" that the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans originally spoke the same language which was English. He gives a number of pseudo-scholarly etymologies to prove his contention: Aristotle is a blending of the English words "arise to tell," which is what he would do when his pupils arrived for lessons; Pygmalion was a short, brave king whose name is derived from "pygmy lion."
The logical fallacy of equivocation is always a pun. Two different meanings of a key word are used to draw an invalid conclusion.
Man is the only rational animal. No woman is a man. Therefore, no woman is rational.
Practice makes perfect. My doctor who has been in practice for twenty-five years must be perfect.
Ducks say "quack." Senator Johnson is a lame duck. Senator Johnson says "quack."
Puns can also be used to conclude multi-line and multi-paragraph narratives.
A shaggy-dog story is a long, rambling, seemingly pointless narrative; its humor is derived from its numerous details and its ending which is usually absurdly anticlimactic and sometimes based on a pun.
A feghoot is a kind of shaggy-dog story; it may be long or short and it always ends with a pun on a familiar phrase. The term is derived from a series of science-fiction stories (1956-1973) written by Grendel Briarton (anagrammed pseudonym of Reginald Bretnor) whose main character, Ferdinand Feghoot, traveled through time and space solving problems. The stories always ended with a deliberately terrible pun.
Myles na gCopaleen (nom de plume of Brian O'Nolan) frequently included (multilingual) feghoots in his long-running Irish Times column "Cruiskeen Lawn" (1939 to 1966). Many appeared as episodes in the fictionalized lives of Keats and Chapman. In one he tells a story about Chapman pouring glue onto the back of the abstracted pacing headmaster. This attracted wasps, gnats and flies. Seeing this two bullies pick up Chapman and jam him onto the back of the still abstracted headmaster. Finally, the headmaster notices what is going on. Because no one would confess, he flogs every boy in the school, except Chapman the victim. When asked his opinion about Chapman's prank, Keats (who had been flogged with the others) replied, I like a man that sticks to his principals.48 In another Keats was about to enter a cab when he observed that the previous occupant has spilled milk on the upholstery. Instead of crying over the spilt milk, Keats said to the cabman: "What's this? A cabri-au-lait?"49 For more about Myles na gCopaleen see Myles Race.
The "Peabody's Improbably History" segments of the Rocky and Bullwinkle animated television show (1959-1964) were feghoots. Mr. Peabody, an intellectual dog, and his human assistant ("my boy Sherman") would use the WABAC machine to travel (way back) in time to study (and sometimes intervene in) historical events. The episodes would always end with a pun. For example, in the "Romeo and Juliet" episode they help Shakespeare finish his play Romeo and Zelda. At the end Shakespeare, having been put in jail for dueling, is not the "Bard of Avon" but "Barred in Avon."50
Limericks sometimes incorporate one or more puns:
A flea and a fly in a flue Were caught, so what could they do? Said the fly, "Let us flee." "Let us fly," said the flea. So they flew through a flaw in the flue. There was a young fellow named Hall Who fell in the spring in the fall. 'Twould have been a sad thing Had he died in the spring, But he didn't; he died in the fall.
Below are some lines from Thomas Hood's humorous poem "Faithless Sally Brown."51
They met a press-gang crew; 6 And Sally she did faint away, 7 Whilst Ben he was brought to. 8 ... "For when your swain is in our boat, 15 A boatswain he will be." 16 ... "Alas! they've taken my beau, Ben, 29 To sail with old Benbow;" 30 ... "The Tender-ship," cried Sally Brown, 35 What a hard-ship that must be! 36 ... "O Sally Brown, O Sally Brown, 53 How could you serve me so? 54 I've met with many a breeze before, 55 But never such a blow!" 56 ... His death, which happen'd in his berth, 65 At forty-odd befell: 66 They went and told the sexton, 67 And the sexton toll'd the bell. 68
In line 8 Brought to means "regain consciousness," which contrasts with Sally's faint. It is also a nautical term meaning "to fasten or tie" which is what the press-gang does to Ben. Sally faints but Ben is brought to.
The pun in lines 15-16 on swain in our boat and boatswain is visual (homographic) because boatswain is pronounced "bosun."
There is a sound pun in lines 29 and 30: Sally's "beau, Ben" will sail with John Benbow (30), the famous English admiral.
In lines 35-36 there is a pun on tender-ship which Sally thinks means "soft ship" but actually means "a ship which attends or services another ship." She contrasts this to a "hard-ship" which is a pun on hardship.
There is an exclusive word pun on blow in line 56 which is a storm (contrasted with breeze in line 55) and also a "punch," "shock" or "attack."
Ironically, in line 65 Ben dies in his "berth" -- a exclusive word pun on death and birth.
Unlike in line 56 (blow) and line 65 (berth) lines 67 and 68 repeat the punning words (told and toll'd).
Puns are frequently incorporated into larger works such as poems and plays. In addition to humor and comic relief, they are also used for various rhetorical effects, such as emphasizing a similarity, highlighting a contrast or making an allusion.
In "A Hymn to God the Father" John Donne puns on "done" and "Donne":
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun My last thread, I shall perish on the shore; Swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Sun Shall shine as it shines now, and heretofore; And, having done that, Thou has done, I fear no more.
In the last stanza (above) Donne uses the common pun on Sun and Son. The last line of the poem, "I fear no more" (no longer), puns on the last line of the preceding two stanzas: "For I have more" (additional sins).
There are hundreds of non-humorous puns in the works of Shakespeare. "Sonnet 138" is about the mutual beneficial deception of two lovers. She pretends that he is not old and he affects not to be aware of her pretense: Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,/ And in our faults by lies we flattered be." In the final two lines lie means "to rest," "to have intercourse" and "tell untruths."
In Love's Labor's Lost (I, i, 77) Berowne uses light several ways in a single line: "Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile." The mind/intellect, seeking knowledge/wisdom, deprives/cheats itself out of daylight/the ability to see.
The common sun/son pun appears in the opening lines of Richard the Third (I, i, 1-4). Richard speaks about his brother Edward's ascension to the throne:
Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York; And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
In the lines that follow the pun is extended and strengthened. Richard and Edward are both sons of Richard, Duke of York, but Edward is the rising sun/son, the one of "fair proportion," (18) while "[d]eform'd, unfinish'd" (20) Richard has "no delight to pass away the time,/ Unless to see my shadow in the sun [son]" (25-26).
The opening scene of Romeo and Juliet begins with several puns:Sampson: Gregory, on my word, we'll not carry coals.
Colliers = coal miners and servants who carry coals; in choler = angry; collar = neck of a garment; we'll draw = we'll draw our swords; draw your neck out of collar = avoid hanging; quickly = easily and rapidly; and quick = alive. The scene continues with several more puns.
In Act I, Scene iv there are puns on measure us ("judge us"), measure them a measure ("dance," "give them a dance"), heavy ("sad," "not light") and nimble soles [souls] of lead.
Benvolio: ... But let them measure us by what they will, We'll measure them a measure and be gone. Romeo: Give me a torch, I am not for this ambling; Being but heavy, I will bear the light. Mercutio: Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance. Romeo: Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes With nimble soles, I have a soul of lead So stakes me to the ground I cannot move. (9-16)
In Act IV, Scene v, note is used to mean "pay attention to" and "musical note." Crotchets are both "whims" and "quarter-notes."
Peter: Then will I lay the serving-creature's dagger on your pate. I will carry no crotchets: I'll re you, I'll fa you; do you note me? First Musician: An you re us and fa us, you note us. (117-20)
The same puns are used in Much Ado About Nothing (II, iii, 52-57):
Don Pedro: Nay, pray thee, come, Or if thou wilt hold longer argument, Do it in notes. Balthasar: Note this before my notes; There's not a note of mine that's worth the noting. Don Pedro: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks -- Note, notes, forsooth, and nothing.
There is also a pun on nothing and noting. This is true of the title of the play, throughout which there are many references to notes and noting (observing, paying attention, remembering).
Speaking about Polonius, the dead Lord Chamberlain, Hamlet puns on grave ("serious," "burial place") and draw ("drag Polonius from the room," "bring an end to their dealings," "finish his conversation").
This counsellor Is now most still, most secret and most grave, Who was in life a foolish prating knave. Come, sir, to draw toward an end with you (III, iv, 213-16)
The pun on port in these lines from Alexander Pope's The Dunciad (Book IV, 201-202) yields contrasting images of Richard Bently (a classical scholar) as a storm-tossed boat lying safely in a harbor and a man sleeping in a drunken stupor.
Where Bentley late tempestuous wont to sport In troubled waters, but now sleeps in Port.
In Song of Myself Walt Whitman writes that animals do not whine about their condition or weep for their sins; they are not respectable nor unhappy:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self contain'd, I stand and look at them long and long. (Section 32, lines 684-85)
"Long and long" indicates that he watches them for a long time. The second long is also used as a verb meaning "yearn." He watches the animals for a long time and yearns for their placidity and self-containment.
James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is a book of puns -- thousands of multilingual, allusive puns, some humorous and some not. Many are water-related, such as puns on river names. In the "Anna Livia Plurabelle" section two women are washing clothes in the river Liffey. One says, Well, you know or don't you kennet. Kennet is a pun on ken it ("know it") and an allusion to the river Kennet. Further on she says, O, my back, my back, my bach! I'd want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Bach is a pun on the German word for brook. Aches-les-Pains ("aches less pains") is a pun on Aix-les-Bains in France. A few lines later she says, Wharnow are alle her childer, say? In kingdome gone or power to come or gloria be to them farther? Allalivial, allalluvial!52 This puns on a line from the Lord's Prayer and the last two words have multiple meanings.
A portmanteau word combines two words or morphemes to form a new word with multiple meanings. For example, spork combines spoon and fork to create a word that signifies both. Allalivial and allalluvial combine (at least) Anna Livia (a character in the book), la lluvia (Spanish for "rain"), Alleluia ("Hallelujah"), and alluvial ("river deposits"). Whether a portmanteau word is a pun or a distinct trope is debatable.
In Finnegans Wake the multiple meanings of words interact with the multiple meanings of other words to generate a vast web of possible and actual meanings.
The pun is often dismissed as a low form of humor and various "authorities" are cited to support the contention: John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Ambrose Bierce and others.
It's said that there are over three thousand puns in Shakespeare's works. There seems to be no actual source for this number, but there certainly are hundreds and hundreds -- so many, in fact, that he was criticized for overusing them.
One of the most frequently repeated criticisms is Samuel Johnson's:
A quibble [pun], poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
Johnson believed that most of Shakespeare's puns were inappropriate, especially in the histories and tragedies because the situations demanded seriousness and dignity, not word play and joking: Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition ... but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished.53
Johnson's denunciation is repeated again and again. William Empson commenting on Johnson's assessment 150 years later agrees with him and adds that punning "is one of the less reputable aspects of our national poet."54
Short-sighted Johnson failed to appreciate that clever wordplay was valued more in Shakespeare's time than his own. Maurice Morgann writing at about the same time as Johnson understood that[t]he censure commonly passed on Shakespeare's puns, is, I think, not well founded. I remember but very few, which are undoubtedly his, that may not be justifyed... .55
Decades earlier Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare's first biographer, in the preface to the 1709 edition of Shakespeare's works wrote:
As for his Jingling sometimes, and playing upon Words, it was the common Vice of the Age he liv'd in: And if we find it in the Pulpit, made use of as an Ornament to the Sermons of some of the Gravest Divines of those Times; perhaps it may not be thought too light for the Stage.56
The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge also saw that
... something of Shakspeare's punning must be attributed to his age, in which direct and formal combats of wit were a favourite pastime of the courtly and accomplished. It was an age more favourable, upon the whole, to vigour of intellect than the present, in which a dread of being thought pedantic dispirits and flattens the energies of original minds. But independently of this, I have no hesitation in saying that a pun, if it be congruous with the feeling of the scene, is not only allowable in the dramatic dialogue, but oftentimes one of the most effectual intensives of passion.57
Chastising Shakespeare for punning is like condemning William Wordsworth for alluding to Triton and Proteus in his poem "The World Is Too Much With Us" because we don't much like classical references in our poetry today. We may believe that they interrupt the flow of the poem and add nothing to it, but that's our problem not Wordsworth's.
Further, Johnson seemed to think that Shakespeare's puns were never serious, dignified or profound, but always jokey and disruptive. But this is not true. For example, In Cymbeline (IV, ii, 262-63) Guiderius sings:
Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust
This pun has metaphysical overtones. As surely as a chimney sweeper must deal with soot, we will all be reduced to dust (ashes to ashes and dust to dust) and, therefore, we may be no more significant than chimney soot.
In Children of the Ghetto Israel Zangwill notes Johnson's error. Dutch Debby, a seamstress who barely earns enough to live on, is delighted that Esther has returned to the ghetto after some years: It seems a dream that you are sitting at dinner with me. Pinch me, will you? Esther replies sadly: You have been pinched enough [not enough money to buy necessities]. Zangwill adds: Which shows that one can pun with a heavy heart. This is one of the things Shakespeare knew and Dr. Johnson didn't.58
For example, in Romeo and Juliet (III, i, 96-98) Benvolio asks Mercutio, who has been fatally injured, if he is hurt. Mercutio answers:
'tis not so deep as a well, not so wide as a church-door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
The pun underscores Mercutio's realization that he is fatally wounded. Although he can still joke, he does so with the knowledge that tomorrow he will not be the clever man he was but a serious, grave man who will lie in his grave.
Notice that Johnson claims that in punning Shakespeare sacrificed "reason, propriety, and truth." My goodness! A bit over the top, don't you think? Actually, it isn't unusual; see "Elitism and Snobbery" below.
If serious writers as different as Shakespeare, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Hood, Alexander Pope, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce included puns in their works, why is the pun disparaged?
The statement that "the pun is the lowest form of humor" is often attributed to Samuel Johnson, but there is no evidence that he ever wrote or said it. In fact, there seems to be no source for the exact quotation.
Those who repeat the statement haven't given the subject serious consideration. Are they not aware of the practical joke, the "nuggie" and the "wet willie?" Have they never heard the phrase "pull my finger" or the story of "The Aristocrats?" Lowest form of humor, indeed!
The negative assertion that "the pun is the lowest for of humor" is as silly as the positive claim that "the only true, satisfactory, and indisputable definition of man is, that he is a PUNNING animal."59
The claim that "the pun is the lowest form of wit" has been attributed to several people, including Samuel Johnson. There is no evidence that he ever wrote or said it, although in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) he defined a punster as: "A quibbler; a low wit who endeavours at reputation by double meaning."
Charles Lamb is often quoted in support of the view that puns are crude and lack subtly. He claimed that a pun "is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit" and that the worst and, therefore, the best puns are "the most far-fetched and startling." Further, a pun
is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect. [emphasis added] It is an antic which does not stand upon manners, but comes bounding into the presence, and does not show the less comic for being dragged in sometimes by the head and shoulders. What though it limp a little, or prove defective in one leg? -- all the better.60
There are several points to be made about Lamb's view of the pun (which he also expressed in other published pieces and in letters).
First, Lamb's imagery is too confused to be meaningful: the pun does not stand but bounds in, or it limps in on a defective leg, or it is dragged in. Is it brawny or feeble?
Second, Lamb liked the kinds of puns (unambiguous sound puns and exclusive word puns) which frequently are like pistol shots. This is Lamb's example of an excellent pun:
An Oxford scholar, meeting a porter who was carrying a hare through the streets, accosts him with this extraordinary question: "Prithee, friend, is that thy own hare, or a wig!"About this he says "[t]here is no excusing this, and no resisting it."61 Even allowing for a difference in time and place -- men wore wigs and carried hares in the streets -- this is a weak pun. Years earlier Thomas Sheridan used this same "notorious Oxford jest" as an illustration of "The Brazen Rule" in "The Art of Punning".62 Lamb did not like "puns, which, if missed, leave the sense and the drollery full and perfect without them." If a reader doesn't recognize a pun then it is "perfectly gratuitous."63 He called this kind of pun a "make-weight." Lamb believed that a pun should be obvious: "O never lug it in as an accessory."64 (See Tom Hood about "silent" puns below.)
Third, Lamb's criteria could be used to defend, for example, farting at a cocktail party, but would we want to? Farts are not bound by the limits of a nicer wit; they are like pistol shots; sometimes they bound in and sometimes they limp in; the worst are the best; there is no excusing them and no resisting them. Lamb's defense of the "antic" pun -- the worst are the best -- is no defense at all. In fact, sometimes his own words are used against the pun; Joseph Tartakovsky cites the pistol/feather quotation to support his contention that puns are offensive (see below).
Fourth. quoting Lamb's praise of the pun (a pistol let off at the ear) in order to condemn the pun is misleading. One could just as easily defend the pun by citing another of his statements: "A Pun is a noble thing .... it fills the mind; it is perfect as a sonnet, better." Which is it -- something noble better than a sonnet or a bounding antic thing? Pick your citation.65
Fifth, Lamb says that the "puns which are most entertaining are those which least bear an analysis."66 This is an absurd, anti-intellectual statement. He says the pun is as good as the sonnet but would he argue that the most entertaining sonnets are those which least bear analysis? Scanning a poem, examining a metaphor, unraveling a paradoxical statement or deconstructing a novel does not make them less "entertaining"; intellectual engagement doesn't lessen our pleasure. Why can't the pun "tickle the intellect"? Is it even possible to react to it only emotionally?
Sixth, many people find Lamb's essays and letters interesting and amusing, but it's generally acknowledged that he was no theorist. His statements about the pun are contradictory. It is as perfect as a sonnet; a "Pun is a sole object ... it is entire, it fills the mind."67 And, yet, the most entertaining go off like pistol shots and cannot be analyzed. He preferred the unambiguous pun and rejected all subtlety. Lamb was not being facetious when he wrote that "the worst are the best"; he defends the pun by dismissing it from serious consideration. His lines about a pun being like a pistol are frequently quoted, but neither critics nor defenders of the pun should turn to him for support.
Sometimes John Dennis is credited with saying "the pun is the lowest form of wit," but he said something quite different:
This reminds us of a pun of [Samuel] Garth to [Nicholas] Rowe, who making repeated use of his [Garth's] snuff-box, the Doctor at last sent it to him [Rowe] with the two Greek Letters written in the lid, [Phi Rho]. At this the sour Dennis was so provoked as to declare that "a man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket."68
In The Devil's Dictionary Ambrose Bierce defines the pun as a "form of wit, to which wise men stoop and fools aspire."69 First, a quotation from The Devil's Dictionary is frequently used as an easy way to begin an essay or to add some humor; other definitions often used are "Brain," "Marriage," "Religion," "Senate" and "Woman." Few people take Bierce's definitions as true or profound. Second, Bierce doesn't explain why the pun is something to which "wise men stoop," nor should we expect him to in a book of sardonic definitions. Although the definition is often quoted, it's no more meaningful or useful than saying "two can live as cheaply as one."
In 1672 John Dryden's characterization of the pun as "the lowest and most groveling kind of wit" is often repeated but without his qualification:
Nay, he [Ben Jonson] was not free from the lowest and most groveling kind of wit, which we call clenches [puns], of which Every Man in his Humor is infinitely full... .
Dryden personally did not like puns (although he sometimes punned in his plays), but he (unlike Samuel Johnson) understood that they were valued at the time Jonson and Shakespeare wrote (even ministers were punsters).
This was then the mode of wit, the vice of the age, and not Ben Jonson's; for you see, a little before him, that the admirable wit, Sir Philip Sidney, perpetually playing with his words. In his time, I believe, it ascended first into the pulpit... .70
About 150 years later in his An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) Noah Webster defined the pun:
PUN, An expression in which a word has at once different meanings; an expression in which two different applications of a word present an odd or ludicrous idea; a kind of quibble or equivocation; a low species of wit. Thus a man who had a tall wife named Experience, observed that he had, by long experience, proved the blessings of a married life.
The statement that "the pun is the lowest form of wit" may have evolved from Dryden's criticism ("the lowest and most groveling kind of wit") or Webster's definition ("a low species of wit").
The notion of the pun's lowness rests in part on a chain of authority based on an assumption. It was believed that the Classical writers did not intentionally pun. They served as models; that which they did was high and that which they did not do was low. But those who esteemed them as models already knew that the pun was a low form of wit. Therefore, instances of punning by Classical writers were explained as unintentional or the results of ignorance: they did not know "the rules of art" (see Addison in "Snobbery" below).
Modern analyses have shown that the Classical writers did, intentionally and without embarrassment, engage in word play, including punning, as did Medieval and Renaissance writers. But for a long time the unbiased study of Classical punning was avoided. Why? Because the pun is not worthy of study. Why not? Everybody knows the pun is the lowest form of wit. Didn't the great Classical writer pun? No, they shunned it. Have you studied their texts to see if that is true? No. Why? Because Professor Smith says the pun is unworthy of study. Why does he say that? Because Dr. Jones tells us it's so. Why did he say that? Because the Classical writers shunned it.
"Low wit," "nicer wit," "groveling kind of wit," "mode of wit," "admirable wit," and "a low species of wit" don't necessarily refer to the same thing. The meaning of wit has evolved over time from a broad notion of "knowledge" or "intelligence" (in contrast to, for example, "halfwit" and "unwitting") to the modern idea of quickness and cleverness in the use of language especially for a humorous effect.
Critics and philosophers have tried to distinguish "wit" from "originality," "inspiration," "ingenuity," "genius," "fancy" and "imagination." Its definition was modified by including qualities such as "propriety," "discernment," "judgement," "good sense," "agreeableness," "good taste" or "pleasure." Some emphasized the ability to perceive similarities between things; others stressed the perception of incongruities. Some emphasized quickness of thought; others emphasized humor. Distinctions were made between "true" wit and "false" wit.
It's unlikely that Dryden's 17th-century characterization ("the lowest and most groveling kind of wit") and Webster's 19th-century definition ("a low species of wit") refer to the same thing or to our modern notion of "wit."
An obvious question to pose to anyone who now expresses the opinion that "the pun is the lowest for of wit" is "What do you mean by wit"? We might also ask "What do you consider to be the second-lowest form?" Request to see their list of wits ranked from lowest to highest and ask what criteria were used?
There is no rational basis for declaring the pun or any other figure of speech to be lowest or highest, although individual instances may be criticized for various reasons.
When a pun is meant is it punishment?71
Although we may reproach Shakespeare for making weak puns, we can't criticize him for being a punster. The pun's popularity waxes and wanes. So, besides failing to recognize that the pun is more common and more valued at certain times, why do critics disparage the pun -- not particular puns, but all puns? There are several reasons.
Some people simply do not like sound puns; they prefer some degree of ambiguity.
Others do not like "bad" sound puns because they are seem crude and are conspicuous: Sheer insolence! sheer off! she are not for you!72However, this sort of pun, frequently found in pantos, burlesques, and knock-knock jokes, wouldn't be "good" (funny) unless it was "bad"; they are meant to be unsubtle. A groan is as good as a laugh: But sorrow's fruitless, so I bury mine,/ And I sow melon-choly, don't reap pine.73
Further, constructing "bad" puns requires talent; they are not easier to make than "good" puns; we should appreciate the skill even if we don't like the product.
Some stand-alone sound puns do sometimes seem inferior to other types because they are based on words that don't sound very much alike: The horse was accused of robbery but he de-neighed it.
Question: What does a punning turkey say? Answer: Quibble, quibble. A quibble is a pun. Quibble and gobble sort of sound alike: both start with a consonant and end with "bble." Gobble is simply an onomatopoetic word; it has no meaning so there can be no ambiguity. Therefore, the humor or pleasure must come from the sound only and the distance between gobble and quibble is too great. It would be less of a stretch to say that a lame turkey says "Hobble, hobble."
In Blackwood's Magazine, April, 1830, (633) there appeared a series of thirty-four "Poetical Portraits" beginning with Shakespeare and ending with Thomas Hood (who was an excellent punster):
Impugn I dare not thee For I'm of puny brood And thou would'st punish me With pungent hardiHOOD.
The writer tried to put together a quatrain about Hood that included as many puns as possible. One is based on one sound (punish and pungent). Another is based on a different sound (impugn and puny) which presumably would be pronounced to rhyme with pun ("im-pun" and "pun-y"). The last is based on Hood and hardihood. Why would he want to "impugn" Hood since the other thirty-three "Portraits" are complimentary? Because it would give him a "pugn." Brood and hardiHOOD do not rhyme and make a bad sound pun. The last two lines barely make sense.
Sound puns are like end-rhymes: they call attention to themselves (as word play does). Bad sound puns are like bad end-rhymes: "My turtledove,/ The stars above/ Know you're my love."
Either you like unambiguous sound puns or you don't, but dismissing all puns because you dislike some is unreasonable.
Reading, listening, decoding language is a complex process that, among other things, relies on context to determine meaning. Many words have more than one meaning so even simple statements can be ambiguous.
The tourist picked up the guide. There is initial uncertainty because guide can mean "someone who guides" or "a publication that offers guidance." The tourist may have lifted a booklet off a table or lifted a person (who had fallen). Further, picked up can also mean "picked up someone as in a bar," "picked up a hitchhiker," "bought something" and more. The statement meets the criteria for an ambiguous statement pun. In context it might be humorous or ironic, but as a stand-alone "pun" it collapses under the weight of its own ambiguity.
An ambiguous pun is either word-ambiguous or statement-ambiguous. In both cases the ambiguity depends upon the context of the statement. The fact that some of the words in a statement have multiple meanings does not make it a pun. Sufficient information is required in order to reduce the number of possible meanings so that some effect (such as humor or irony) is achieved. The information is provided by the context as we saw above with the puns of Myles na gCopaleen (I like a man that sticks to his principals) and Shakespeare (Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man).
A stand-alone pun must be self-contained. It was like casting perils before swains. This bad sound pun is further weakened because the word it provides no context.
The people of the hamlet couldn't make up their minds. Why were the people, like Shakespeare's Hamlet, indecisive? Which people? Which hamlet? The statement needs a richer context.
Each word in a stand-alone pun can contribute to the context.
Bill in the phrase "put it on the bill" can mean "a law," "a statement of money owed," "an advertisement," "a list of particulars," "the brim of a hat" or "the beak-like part of a bird." However, "put it on my bill" usually means put the cost of something on my tab, my running account.
The animal said to the merchant, "Put it on my bill." We recognize that there may be a pun but the statement is vague and not funny. The context is too broad; there are too many possible meanings.
The duck said to the merchant, "Put it on my bill." This is a word pun. Ducks have flat "bills" on which something might be placed. But what? Certainly not a new car or mattress.
The duck said to the bartender, "Put it on my bill." Duck and bartender create a context for the pun on bill; we recognize that it could be some sort of drink or the cost of the drink. The pun evokes a humorous image of a bartender confused about whether to place the drink on the bar or on the duck's bill and to wait for payment or put it on the duck's tab. It is an inclusive statement pun because the duck could want the drink placed on its bill and its cost placed on its tab. The statement can be made even richer by having the duck wear a baseball cap.
A pun is more or less ambiguous because it more or less makes sense in more than one way. Some puns are weak because of imprecise or illogical word ambiguity.
The breadbox was empty because the dough wouldn't rise. There are two meanings for dough, but one of them is irrelevant because it's illogical; money can't, doesn't, wouldn't rise -- not even figuratively. There are other definitions for rise, such as "get out of bed" and "come to the surface." Empty can also mean "without value" and "needing nourishment." But no manipulation of any of the meanings of the words -- for example, "The breadbox was hungry because the money wouldn't get out of bed" -- yields any logical ambiguity.
I used to be a carpenter, but then I got bored. The pun is on the homonyms bored ("tired," "uninterested"), bored ("drilled") and board ("a sawn piece of wood"). (1) Certainly boredom is a reason for quitting your job. (2) It's conceivable that being (accidentally) drilled severely enough could cause you to give up carpentry. (3) But would you quit because you "got board"? Board is the primary homonym of bored in this case, because the statement is about a carpenter. Since only one of meanings makes complete sense and one of them makes no sense in context, it's a weak pun. You can imagine the "punster" working through a series of words -- I used to be a carpenter, but then I got nailed, got hammered, got cut, got screwed, got sanded -- until he or she found one that "worked." Carpenter, bored, board -- geddit?
I used to be a transplant surgeon, but my heart just wasn't in it. Yes, heart refers back to transplant surgeon, but is there any way to construe "heart just wasn't in it" other than as a lack of "interest" or "dedication"? Surely, it can't refer to the surgeon's chest. The statement is badly constructed because it pivots on it. This is true of many weak puns.
I used to be a ballerina but it was too-too difficult. Too-too sounds like tutu and that refers back to ballerina. But what does it refer to? Changing it to dressing would improve the pun a little: I used to be a ballerina but dressing was too-too difficult.
Like all figures of speech, puns are constructed for some purpose (unless they are accidental) -- to achieve an effect. Our response may or may not be the one intended by the author. For example, he or she may intend humor by constructing a scatological metaphor, but the effect might be disgust.
It's not possible to discuss the effect a pun achieves in absolute terms. What makes one person smile or laugh makes another frown or groan. A pun which elicits "Ah, ha!" from one person might cause another to ask "Huh?" Still, there are weak otiose puns; they aren't clever or ironical or allusive; they don't makes us smile or think.
She's a skillful pilot whose career has really taken off. Pilots and careers can take off. OK, but what's the point? If she were "incompetent" rather than "skillful" or if her career had "crashed" instead of "taken off" we might find the effect to be humor or irony. If our only reaction to a pun is to notice that it is a pun then it's probably a weak pun.
A pun may be created to be humorous, ironical, allusive or metaphorical, but if our response to it is to ask "So what?" then it's a weak pun. Almost certainly that is not what the author was looking for. Puns which achieve little or no effect frequently have illogical or weak word ambiguity.
"I want to be president!" said Franklin piercingly. We recognize that piercingly refers back to the exclamation point and president (Franklin Pierce). But we ask, "What's the point?" They may be fun to construct but Tom Swifties rarely evoke a strong response.
There are several reasons that a pun may be weak. There may be no context, insufficient context or the wrong context for the pun to work. The various meanings of the punning word(s) may not correspond resulting in weak ambiguity. The pun may seem purposeless and elicit no or only a weak response from us.
We hear and read weak and illogical similes and metaphors everyday. For example, "The Trade Center bombings were a wake-up call." A "wake-up call" is something you do purposefully: you instruct someone to wake you at a specific time for a specific reason. Even worse, a local ABC news report said that a family received a wake-up call when a car crashed into their house at 2 am. Another example, "Tomorrow's weather will be a carbon copy of today." A "carbon copy" is inferior to the original. It's reasonable to criticize weak puns (or metaphors), but it's not reasonable to condemn all puns (or metaphors).
Much of the criticism of the pun isn't really about the pun itself but the occasion of its delivery -- when punning is perceived to interrupt the flow of text and especially speech.
Imagine you are watching a serious drama and one of the characters starts to tap dance. The interruption lasts ten seconds and the drama continues. What was that about? You appreciate that the dance was well executed but can't make out its purpose. Eventually, you may understand its significance or conclude that it had no purpose (which annoys you). Some puns embedded in a larger context are like the tap dance in the drama. They seem to have no purpose. This is what bothered Samuel Johnson and others about Shakespeare's puns: their distaste for punning caused them to regard all puns as mere "quibbles"; in Shakespeare's serious plays they seemed inappropriate because the critics could see no purpose for them other than humor. Unwilling to examine his puns more closely they dismissed them as interruptive displays of low wit.
About the pun James Boswell wrote: For my own part, I think no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed; and that a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation.74 Boswell's is a minority opinion.
The conversational pun is singled out for especial condemnation. One of Sheridan's ironic rules in The Art of Punning is the The Rule of Interruption: Although the company be engaged in a discourse of the most serious consequence, it is, and may be lawful to interrupt them with a pun.75
The author of "God's Revenge Against Punning" claims that even the Creator is offended by "the woeful practice of PUNNING." This "abomination" is so serious and widespread "that our very nobles not only commit punning over tea, and in taverns, but even on the Lord's day." 76
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote about the law and conversational punning:
A pun is prima facie an insult to the person you are talking with.†It implies utter indifference to or sublime contempt for his remarks, no matter how serious.†... I have committed my self-respect by talking with such a person. I should like to commit him, but cannot, because he is a nuisance. ... A pun does not commonly justify a blow in return.† But if a blow were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide.77
When the subject is "geological convulsions," the punster asks Holmes what was the cosine of Noah's Ark. This is an application of Sheridan's Rule of Transition which allows you to introduce any thing that has the most remote relation to the subject you are upon.78
For example, let's say you have a friend who has a favorite pun: "What's the best way to communicate with a fish? Drop it a line." Being a clever fellow he is able to modify the pun to include different kinds of fish (trout, salmon, haddock) and non-fish (whales, crabs, eels). During conversation he inserts the pun whenever a body of water or a "fish" is mentioned. If you say you had tuna salad for lunch he asks "What's the best way to communicate with a tuna?" It is not funny (at least not after you have heard it once). The insertion of weak puns into conversation is clearly a reason why many people dislike punning. Even when they are fresh they may be irrelevant to and disruptive of a conversation.
But let's say you have another friend who has a favorite joke about lawyers: "What do you call a lawyer at the bottom of the river? A start." He too is a clever fellow and is able to modify the joke to refer to other bodies of water -- lake, sea, pool -- and other professions -- judge, senator, banker. During conversation he inserts the joke whenever a body of water or a profession he dislikes is mentioned. If the topic is the election of Representative Jones, he will ask "What do you call a Congressman at the bottom of the Potomac?"
By analogy we might argue that, as with conversational puns, conversational jokes are irrelevant and interruptive and should be condemned. But, of course, that's not true. Both can be used, for example, to make or illustrate points, put the topic of conversation into a larger context, or reduce tension.
A truly spontaneous spoken pun, employing both the sound and sense of words, is as rare as a fresh metaphor. One that pleases or amuses is even rarer. Repetition turns a striking metaphor into a cliche and a clever pun into a stale joke. What should be criticized are individual instances of, not only jokes and puns, but also anecdotes, examples, quotations, bon mots, analogies and anything else that is irrelevant and, therefore, interruptive.
Holmes' line about justifiable homicide is frequently repeated, but he did not consider punning to be the only or even the most serious of "the great faults of conversation": what spoils "more good talks than anything else [are] long arguments on special points between people who differ on the fundamental principles upon which these points depend."
Further, Holmes' example puns (more than a page) are unambiguous sound puns: charity is like a top when it begins to hum; the Deluge was a great deal huger than any modern flood; total depravity is punned on by deep raving. Because it is unambiguous this type of pun can rarely contribute anything to a conversation, except humor, and if humor is inappropriate then, of course, it's interruptive. Holmes says nothing about the richer ambiguous word and statement puns.
Although he says the conversational pun is "prima facie an insult," it is the punster he would commit (to a prison, an asylum), whose accidental death as a result of a blow might be considered justifiable homicide. One might argue that punsters need puns; if there were no puns there would be no punsters to "commit." But his subject is talking not writing. Punsters, he says, "are like wanton boys that put coppers on the railroad tracks. They amuse themselves and other children, but their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for the sake of a battered witticism" (emphasis added).
Finally, Holmes does not condemn the written pun; in fact, Holmes puns: "I have committed my self-respect by talking with such a person. I should like to commit him, but cannot, because he is a nuisance"; "Manslaughter, which is the meaning of the one [homicide], is the same as man's laughter, which is the end of the other [verbicide]."
Justifiable homicide! Divine retribution! Are interruptive conversational puns such a serious problem? Really? If so, then the particular punster should be rebuked not the pun as should the specific jokester not the joke or the individual anecdotists not the anecdote.
In his "Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton" Coleridge says that punning may be the lowest, but at all events is the most harmless, kind of wit, because it never excites envy.79 (Here is another "lowest kind of wit" quotation for pun critics.) Coleridge is certainly wrong when he says "it never excites envy."
Charles Lamb describes how a gathering of men (of course) will try to out-pun each other until someone brings the contest to a halt with an unbeatable pun.80 Sheridan in The Art of Punning calls this the "Rule of Retaliation" which "obliges you, if a man makes fifty puns, to return all, or the most of them, in the same kind."81 Louis Untermeyer, who says "I am, I confess, a passionate punster," also notes how a pun can initiate a competition.82
It's the nature of some people (even Presidents) to seize every opportunity to prove their superiority to others. They must contend whether the competition involves puns or you'll-never-believe-what-happened-to-me stories. Of course, there must be winners and losers and some, who would like to compete, don't because they're unqualified. Incompetence and failure can lead to resentment.
Jonathan Swift is reported to have said "Punning is a talent which no man affects to despise but he that is without it."83
A later version is "A pun is the lowest form of humor, unless you thought of it yourself."84
It's too simplistic to say "Those who can pun; those who can't pan," but rarely do we disparage that which we are good at. If Samuel Johnson had been a brilliant punster would he have called the pun "poor and barren"?
There is a degree of elitism, even snobbery, in the condemnation of the pun. Ordinary people -- butchers, bakers and candlestick makers -- can and frequently do make puns, but they rarely create sonnets and tragedies. Therefore, the pun can be, at best, "ordinary."
Punning is not tasteful.
Joseph Tartakovsky's 2009 essay expresses a condescending attitude shared by many critics of the pun: "Odds are that a restaurant with a punning name -- Snacks Fifth Avenue, General Custardís Last Stand -- hasn't acquired its first Michelin star."85 We chuckle and nod our heads, but the assertion is both irrelevant and probably incorrect.
First, if it were true it would tell you nothing about the pun, although it might say something about those who select the restaurants to be reviewed.
Second, the lack of a Michelin star tells you nothing about General Custard's custard; most restaurants are unrated.
Third, a punning name (Sun-Maid Raisins, Elgone driving school) or even a punning slogan ("Nothing runs like a Deere," "Your money needs an ally") tells you nothing about the quality of a product or service.
Fourth, unlike Tartakovsky, Michelin does not make judgements based on a restaurant's name. The exact criteria are secret but Michelin claims to assess the quality of products, value for money, and consistency. The following have received one or more stars: Smoque BBQ, Happy Noodles, Hot Box Grill, Belly Shack, Spotted Pig, Purple Pig, Fat Duck, The Black Rat and Slurping Turtle.
He refers to Charles Lamb likening a pun to a pistol shot to illustrate why "puns offend," but doesn't point out that Lamb was praising the pun, nor that Lamb also said the pun is "a noble thing," as "perfect as a sonnet." (See "The Lowest Form of Wit" above.)
The only critical assertion Tartakovsky makes against puns is that they are feeble because they are ephemeral, that they last only for the brief time it takes to "resolve the semantic confusion." He makes no attempt to explain why this is not true of other figures of speech, such as the simile, metaphor, allusion, paradox, or irony, or other forms of wit, such as the epigram, witticism, bon mot, or anecdote. Only the best have a long life -- are remembered, repeated, reread. But, it isn't the figure of speech but specific instances of it that are ephemeral, good or bad, remembered or forgotten.
Tartakovsky attacks a straw man. He refers to the pun's "comic force": they are not "knee-slapping" funny; they are like "off-color jokes." All but one of his example puns are simple, unambiguous, sound puns, the least sophisticated form (see "Sound Puns" above).86 Who is claiming that this type of (humorous) pun is a superior form of art, an assertion that must be challenged?
Alexander Pope's Peri Bathous; or The Art of Sinking in Poetry is a satire on false taste and bad writing. In Chapter 10 the nominal author, a dunce named Martinus Scriblerus, recommends tropes and figures which authors can use for the "Abuse of Speech." One of these, "The Paranomasia, or Pun," is "a Word, [which] like the Tongue of a Jackdaw, speaks twice as much by being split."87 The jackdaw (a bird), considered a chattering nuisance given to thievery, was sometimes used to represent vanity and conceit. It was believed that if the tip of its tongue was split with a sharpened sixpence, it could imitate human speech. Thus, like the jackdaw the pun is common (low-class). If mutilated by a punster a word can be made to have two meanings (a pun) just as the jackdaw can be made to talk like a man. But it (the unambiguous sound pun), like the jackdaw's "speech," is only sound without meaning.
If you have to ask why the pun is the lowest form of wit, you won't understand the answer.
A different form of elitism is based on an appeal to authority. Educated people know the pun is a low form; they have read the authorities -- Johnson, Addison, Pope, and so on -- who say it's so; no further analysis is necessary. Therefore, they do not approve of the pun and they do not intentionally pun.
The hundreds of puns in Shakespeare's writings (some good and some not so good) can be ignored or dismissed, because Samuel Johnson judged them to be merely "poor and barren" quibbles. They need not be taken seriously. Johnson, an authority, enables critics to demonstrate their superior literary taste and knowledge: "Indeed, it's true that Shakespeare was a great poet, but unfortunately (blah, blah, blah) puns." And to support their position they can cite "renowned" critics such as Ambrose Bierce and Charles Lamb.
A similar form of elitism is "justified" by critical theory -- the "rules and arts of criticism."
Joseph Addison is sometimes quoted in support of punning: "The seeds of punning are in the minds of all men." However, he felt these seeds should not be allow to grow:
The seeds of punning are in the minds of all men; and though they may be subdued by reason, reflection, and good sense, they will be very apt to shoot up in the greatest genius that is not broken and cultivated by the rules of art. Imitation is natural to us, and when it does not raise the mind to poetry, painting, music, or other more noble arts, it often breaks out in puns and quibbles.88
Addison explains why the pun, which he defines as "a conceit arising from the use of two words that agree in the sound, but differ in the sense," is "a sound and nothing but a sound."
Aristotle, Cicero and other classical writers described or used the pun. Later great writers, including Shakespeare, "seem to have given a kind of sanction to this piece of false wit." Further, "all the writers of rhetoric have treated of punning with very great respect, and divided the several kinds of it into hard names."
So, he asks, why is it "so entirely banished out of the learned world as it is at present"? Because "the first race of authors ... were destitute of all the rules and arts of criticism." Although "they excel latter writers in greatness of genius, they fall short of them in accuracy and correctness."
The source of the "rules and arts of criticism"? Critics and scholars studied "the several kinds of wit by terms of art, and [considered] them as more or less perfect, according as they were founded in truth." Therefore, the classical writers' puns are "little blemishes" which are not found in the writings of those "who have written since those several blemishes were discovered." Once the distinction "between puns and true wit" was made, "it was very natural for all men of sense to agree in it."
Addison, a member of an elite group, tells his audience, which included some middle-class readers and contemporary writers who punned, that the pun has been judged. He concedes that the great classical writers did not disdain the pun, but that's because they didn't know any better. However, modern men of the "learned world" have worked out "the rules and arts of criticism." The pun has always been a low form; we just didn't know it for a long time. The "seeds of punning" may be in the "minds of all men" but "all men of sense" don't pun. Case closed.
Addison doesn't discuss the "rules and arts of criticism" in this essay; his readers are -- or should be -- familiar with them. Of course, the hoi polloi don't read literary criticism and they know little or nothing about the "noble arts" or "the rules and arts of criticism." The essay was not unusual for its time, but today question-begging and appeal to authority irritate.
The punster is certainly not like "us."
Elitism goes beyond asserting that the pun isn't "high-class" or that the defender of the pun is unfamiliar with authoritative judgements or that the punster is ignorant of the rules and arts of criticism. The punster's very character is flawed.
Samuel Johnson claims that in punning Shakespeare sacrificed reason, propriety and truth. Addison says the urge to pun can be subdued by reason, reflection, good sense and a knowledge of the rules of arts and criticism. Therefore, we must conclude that the maker of puns is an ignorant, unreflective, unreasonable person lacking good sense and taste.
Johnson also equates the pun to "the fatal Cleopatra." The pun is feminine and Shakespeare was not man enough to resist her/its seductiveness and "lost the world" (willingly).
Commenting on Johnson's assertion William Empson adds that "[m]any of us could wish the Bard had been more manly in his literary habits." By "manly" he does not mean a (gentle)man of reason, reflection and good sense (Addison). He acknowledges that to "relate a taste for puns with the author's sexual constitution, one would have to consider what a variety of notions of manliness have held sway," but claims that Shakespeare's punning "shows a lack of decision and will-power, a feminine pleasure in yielding to the mesmerism of language, in getting one's way, if at all, by deceit and flattery."89
Not only are punsters not manly men but also they are childish and lack control. Joseph Tartakovsy claims that they "simply can't help themselves"; their minds cycle "through homophones in search of a quip the way small children delight in rhymes or experiment babblingly with language."
So, the punster lacks taste and respect for authority; he is uneducated; he is a mutilator of words; he is ungentlemanly, unmanly and childish. Why? Because he puns. What's wrong with the pun? It's a low form of wit practiced by uneducated, unmanly ... men.
Degustibus non est disputandum. There is no disputing taste. If you don't like the pun then don't pun and don't associate with punsters. There is nothing wrong with rationally explaining why the pun is a lesser figure of speech (if you can), but be prepared to rank the several kinds (lesser than what?) and justify your ranking. This isn't the 18th century; you can't claim that your taste is superior unless you are ready to support your contention; you can't simply cite authority to "prove" that the pun is low; you cannot attack the punster as a person.
Writing about his father's extraordinary punning ability, Tom Hood, son of Thomas Hood, makes a couple of interesting points about the pun:
Puns have been styled the lowest form of wit, and the critics have fallen foul of them from time immemorial until the present day. But a pun proper -- and there should be a strict definition of a pun -- is, it is humbly submitted, of so complicated a nature as to be anything but a low form of wit. A mere jingle of similar sounds, or a distortion of pronunciation does not constitute a pun -- a double meaning is essential to its existence -- a play of sense as well as of sound.90
He rightly recognizes the "complicated nature" of ambiguous puns -- that they involve "sense as well as sound," but wrongly dismisses the unambiguous pun as a "mere jingle of sounds." There is no need to lower one type in order to elevate the other. The ambiguous pun is more sophisticated than the unambiguous pun, but because of the long history of using the term pun to refer to different kinds of word play, it's better to classify them as "ambiguous" or "unambiguous" (with subcategories), than to call one kind a "pun proper" and the other a mere "jingle" or "quibble" or something else.
Further, unambiguous puns are not always "a low form of wit." They are sometimes quite funny and they can be pleasing. For example, Thomas Hood's comic poem "Faithless Nelly Gray" begins:
Ben Battle was a soldier bold, And used to war's alarms; But a cannon-ball took off his legs, So he laid down his arms!91
Having lost his legs, ironically named Ben Battle quit fighting and "laid down his arms." There is an ambiguous statement pun: Ben is both a soldier bold ("brave") and a soldier bowled ("over by a cannonball"). The unambiguous sound pun on war's alarms -- without legs "Ben is all arms" -- is more than a "jingle of sounds"; it's clever and emphasizes Ben's plight.
The unambiguous pun works well when both the punster and his audience know that a "bad" pun is being made -- as, for example, in pantos and burlesques. Tom seems unwilling to admit that many of his father's puns were, in fact, unambiguous sound and sense puns. Later in the poem Nelly Gray tells Ben:
And now you cannot wear your shoes Upon your feats of arms!
Tom Hood continues:
In other words, the sense is complete without any reference to the second meaning. Tested by this rule, the majority of so-called puns, which have brought discredit on punning, would be immediately condemned, the only excuse for the form in which they are written being the endeavour to tack on a second meaning, or too often only an echo of sound without meaning.92
Again, there is no need to condemn "the majority of so-called puns," but Hood's first point is important. You may read a statement and miss the pun and that's fine; a pun need not be like Lamb's "pistol shot." The double meaning (ambiguity) must be inherent in the words and not just the result of some distortion of sound. The pun can be very subtle as in Hood's poem "Lines to a Lady on her Departure for India."
Go where the maiden on a marriage plan goes,
Consign'd for wedlock to Calcutta's quay,
Where woman goes for mart, the same as mangoes,
And think of me!93
At the time when the poem was written some unmarried women traveled to India to find husbands among the many single, British men living there. The various meanings of consign are exploited. The maiden is "sent to" Calcutta where she will "commit forever" to the "care and safekeeping" of a man. She is a consignment (of goods) and wedlock is a consignment (a commitment to confinement).
The maiden goes to India to offer herself for purchase just as "mangoes" and other produce are offered in a marketplace. But, just as she goes to market for a purpose, so to "man goes." The maiden and the man engage in a financial transaction. The woman must initiate the exchange by traveling to India; that's where the men are. But the men don't just stumble across unwed maidens; they actively look for them. Buying a wife as you would a mango is just as demeaning as selling yourself like a mango.
This ambiguous, inclusive statement-pun does not jingle, does not call attention to itself. Through extreme concision the pun's double meaning ("mangoes," "man goes") extends and enriches the passage. Without it the statement says one thing about women. With the pun it says two things about women and men.
It's not necessary to understand the difference between an unambiguous, sense pun and an ambiguous, exclusive statement pun -- or between a restrictive and non-restrictive clause or metonymy and synecdoche -- in order to appreciate and enjoy good prose and poetry. But a familiarity with the various types of puns can help us to recognize and evaluate them and is necessary for informed criticism; simply dismissing one type as "jingles" or all types as "low wit" is unacceptable.
The pun is one of many literary devices. It ranges from simple unambiguous word plays to sophisticated ambiguous tropes. Punning didn't make Shakespeare a great writer and it didn't prevent him from becoming one. A particular pun isn't superior because it was created by James Joyce or inferior because your Uncle Bob constructed it.
We do not claim that punning is "highly beneficial to the bodily health, moral feeling, and intellectual improvement of the community,"94 but we do claim that the pun is a sophisticated figure of speech. It can be used to convey irony, highlight paradox, and extend and deepen meaning. It can be allusive. It can function as a metaphor. And, of course, it can express ambiguity. It can make us laugh. It can be so obvious and "bad" as to cause us to groan aloud and so subtle as to require close reading to even perceive it.
And, however our Dennises [critics] take offence, A double meaning shows double sense; And if proverbs tell truth, A double tooth Is Wisdom's adopted dwelling!95
When a valid word is checked, the score for the word is the sum of (1) the letter-points of the primary word and all new cross-words and (2) any bonus points.
When you use all seven tiles in your tray to form a word (sometimes call a bingo), the total points for the play are doubled.
You receive 10 edge-points whenever the first or last letter of a word you form on the board lies in an outside row or column and the rest of the letters lie in inner columns or rows. It does not have to be a new letter; you can play into a letter on an edge.
Above the following words earned edge points: BONES, TAG, LAD, DID, BRAID, BE, BEAR. These words did not earn edge points: OOZE, GAS, LET, OWE
Quick Intro to Edgewise
When the original source of a pun is known, it is cited, but many puns are unsourced.
1The origins of the word pun are unknown. It may be an earlier form of or derived from pundigrion which may be derived from the Italian puntiglio ("a fine point," "a quibble"). Although punning is old (there are puns in ancient Egyptian and Mayan writings), the English terms for it are quite recent: paronomasia (1579), quibble (1611), carwitchet (1614), clench (1638), pun (1670), pundigrion (1676). The terms for two types of puns, syllepsis and antanaclasis, date from 1577 and 1657.
2William Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity, 2nd ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1949), analyzes ambiguity and its various types which range from the first, "a word or a grammatical structure [which] is effective in several ways at once," (2) to the seventh, which is "that of full contradiction, marking a division in the author's mind" (7). The first is so broad as to include almost anything and his last requires delving into the mind of the author at the time of writing.
Puns are included in his third type in which "two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously" (3). This type "occurs when two ideas, which are connected only by being both relevant in the context, can be given in one word simultaneously" (102). However, for Empson ambiguity depends, in part, on the effect the word(s) in context have on the reader (or writer). Double meaning is a separate term to be used when a pun is not felt to be ambiguous in effect.
What is an ambiguous effect? "Effects worth calling ambiguous occur when the possible alternative meanings of word or grammar are used to give alternative meanings to the sentence" (70). He acknowledges that "it could be argued that, until you have done your analysis of the ambiguities, you cannot be sure whether the total effect is ambiguous or not; and that this forces you in some degree to extend the meaning of the term" (xi).
So, a figure of speech which is ambiguous (has a double meaning) but which is not ambiguous in its effect (determined by some brief or extended period of analysis) is not actually ambiguous and, therefore, not a pun. His analysis is confusing and sometimes contradictory. His fourth, fifth and seventh types of ambiguity depend upon the author's state of mind which is impossible to know. Seven Types of Ambiguity is not a useful book regarding ambiguity in general nor the pun in particular.
3Israel Zangwill and Louis Cowen, The Premier and the Painter: A Fantastic Romance, 3rd ed (William Heinemann, 1893), 78.
4Henry J. Byron, Miss Eily O'Connor (London: Thomas Hailes Lacy, nd), 6.
5All Shakespeare quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974).
6Thomas Hood, "Please to Ring the Belle," Whims and Oddities, 3rd ed. (London: Lupton Relfe, 1828), 13.
7The Gentlemanís Magazine, Vol. LI, 324.
8James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: The Viking Press, 1959), 214.
9Flann O'Brien: The Complete Novels (New York: Alfred a. Knopf, 2007), 429.
10Thomas Hood, The Epping Hunt (London: Charles Tilt, 1829), 16.
11Henry James Byron, Robinson Crusoe; or Harlequin Friday and the King of the Caribbee Islands! (London: Thomas Hailes Lacy, nd), 9.
12Hood, "The Irish Schoolmaster," Whims and Oddities, 121.
13Thomas Sheridan, Ars Pun-ica, sive Flos Linguarum: The Art of Punning; or the Flower of Languages; in Seventy Nine Rules: for the Farther Improvement of Conversation, and Help of Memory. By the Labour and Industry of Tom Pun-Sibi (Dublin: Carson, 1719) in The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, D.D., Vol 8 (London: Nichols and Son, 1801), 409. It was thought to be by Jonathan Swift, but we now know that it was written by Thomas Sheridan with some contributions by Swift (and maybe others). Three rules were added to the fifth edition by Anthony Hammond.
14Thomas Sheridan, The Art of Punning, 424.
15Hood, "A Storm at Hastings," The Comic Annual, 2nd ed. (London, Charles Tilt, 1830), 74.
16Byron, Robinson Crusoe, 10.
17Hood, The Epping Hunt, 15.
18Byron, Robinson Crusoe, 9.
19Byron, Robinson Crusoe, 18.
20Two easier examples: Rose rose and put rose roes on the roses rows (Rose got up and put rose-colored fish eggs on the rows of roses); Will, will Will will Will Will's will? (Will.1, will Will.2 will [to] Will.3 Will.2's will?).
21Byron, Miss Eily O'Connor, 6.
22James Burn, The Beggar Boy: An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1882), 146.
23Gelett Burgess, Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1914), 58.
24Hood, The Epping Hunt, 7.
25Hood, The Epping Hunt, 9.
26Hood, The Epping Hunt, 20.
27Thomas Sheridan, The Art of Punning, 416.
28Hood, "Please to Ring the Belle," Whims and Oddities,13.
29Hood, "The Duel. A Serious Ballad," The Comic Annual, 1831, 108.
30James Burn, The "Beggar Boy": An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1882), 291.
31Isaac Asimov Treasury of Humor (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), 170.
32Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, end of Chapter 35.
33James Burn, The "Beggar Boy": An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1882), 291.
34Thomas Hood, "Patronage," The Comic Annual (London: A. H. Baily and Co., 1838), 86.
35Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, Canto 3, 7-8. Pope was writing about Queen Anne and Hampton Court Palace.
35aCharlotte Perkins Gilman, What Diantha Did (New York: Charlton Company, 1920), 3.
36Hood, "I'm Going to Bombay," The Comic Annual, 1832, 35.
37Zangwill and Cowen, The Premier and the Painter: A Fantastic Romance, 344.
37aLeonard Merrick, R. Bazalgette's Agent (Glasgow and New York: George Routledge and Sons, 1888), 6.
38Attributed to American-football coach Vince Lombardi.
39Charles Manby Smith, "The Drink Doctor," Curiosities of London Life (London: W. and F.G. Cash, 1857), 164.
40Hood, "The Life of Zimmermann," The Comic Annual, 1832, 81.
41Berton Braley, "And Hallowell Chawed," in Songs of the Workaday World (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1915), p. 95.
42Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 2.
43Byron, Miss Eily O'Connor, 7.
44Thomas Sheridan, The Art of Punning, 407.
45The knock-knock joke apparently dates from the 1930s, although at the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3 of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth there is a monologue in which the hung-over porter responds to knocking off stage as if he were the gatekeeper of hell.
Porter: Here's a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the key. (Knock) Knock, knock, knock! Who's there, i' th' name of Belzebub? Here's a farmer, that hang'd himself on th' expectation of plenty. Come in time! Have napkins enow about you, here you'll sweat for't. (Knock) Knock, knock! Who's there, in th' other devil's name? Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator! (Knock) Knock, knock, knock! Who's there? Faith, here's an English tailor come hither for stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor, here you may roast your goose. (Knock) Knock, knock! Never at quiet! What are you? But this place is too cold for hell. I'll devil-porter it no further. I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. (Knock) Anon, anon! [Opens the gate] I pray you remember the porter.
46The first two are from http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/awful-authors-answers. Oxford Dictionaries Online calls them "Awful Authors." The last three are from a list of about 75 sent by Thomas Hood to the Duke of Devonshire to be used to form a door of fake books at the entrance to his library. See Walter Jerrold, Thomas Hood: His Life and Times (New York: John Lane Co., 1909), 258-261.
47Private Eye, No. 1331, 11-24 Jan 2013, 17. The covers of the magazine display a photograph to which have been added dialog balloons. Frequently puns are incorporated into the dialog.
48The Best of Myles, Kevin O Nolan, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 180-181.
49The Best of Myles, 342.
50Fifteen episodes are available on the DVD titled The Best of Peabody and Sherman.
51Hood, "Faithless Sally Brown," Whims and Oddities, 34.
52James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 213.
53Both Johnson quotations are from his "Preface" to The Plays of William Shakespeare in Ten Volumes, Vol 1 (London, 1773), np.
54William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 87.
55Maurice Morgann, "An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstall" (1777) in Eighteenth Century Essays on Shakespeare, D. Nichol Smith, ed. (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1903), 267, footnote 1.
56Nicholas Rowe, "Some Account of the Life &c. of Mr. William Shakespear," The Works of Mr. William Shakespear, Vol 1 (London: Jacob Tonson, 1709), xxiii.
57Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Richard II," Lectures on Shakespeare, Etc. (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1907), 116.
58Israel Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto, Vol 2 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1892), 227.
59Henry, Kett, The Flowers of Wit Vol. 2 (Hartford: Oliver D. Cooke & Co., 1825), 120.
60Charles Lamb, "That the Worst Puns Are the Best," The Last Essays of Elia (Chicago: Donohue, Henneberry & Co. nd), 231.
61Lamb, "That the Worst Puns Are the Best," 232.
62Thomas Sheridan, The Art of Punning, 405).
63Lamb, Review of Odes and Addresses To Great People by Thomas Hood and John Hamilton Reynolds, The New Times, April 12, 1825, in The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb: I. Miscellaneous Prose (1798-1834) (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913), 335.
64Lamb, Letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 2 July 1825, Life and Works of Charles Lamb, Vol 11, 187.
65Lamb, "Letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge."
66Lamb, "That the Worst Puns Are the Best," 231-232.
67Lamb, "Letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge."
68Editor's note, The Gentlemanís Magazine, Vol. li, p. 324.
69The definition is not in the original The Devil's Dictionary in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol 7 (New York: The Neal Publishing Company, 1911), but in The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, ed. Ernest J. Hopkins (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1967) which includes "851 Newly Discovered Words and Definitions."
70John Dryden, "Defense of the Epilogue, or An Essay on the Dramatic Poetry of the Last Age," (1672) in Selected Dramas of John Dryden, George R. Noyes, ed. (New York: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1910), 144.
71Thomas Sheridan, The Art of Punning, 416.
72Byron, Robinson Crusoe, 8.
73Byron, Robinson Crusoe, 16.
74James Boswell, Boswell's Life of Johnson (London: Henry Frowde, 1904), 567.
75Thomas Sheridan, The Art of Punning, 408.
76Alexander Pope, "God's Revenge Against Punning." For a long time it was thought that this satirical piece was written by Swift; thus, it's found in The Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., Vol 1 (London: George Bell and Sons, 1880), 840. Pope claimed to dislike the pun, but did "commit punning" in The Dunciad, The Rape of the Lock and other works when it suited his purpose. Among his examples is the "Devonshire man of wit, [who] for only saying in a jesting manner I get up pun a horse, instantly fell down and broke his snuff-box and neck, and lost the horse."
77Oliver Wendell Holmes, "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table," The "Breakfast-Table" Series (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1882). All quotations are from pages 10 and 11.
78Thomas Sheridan, The Art of Punning, 411.
79Coleridge, "Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton: The Seventh Lecture," Lectures on Shakespeare, Etc., 428.
80Lamb, "That the Worst Puns Are the Best," 231-235.
81Thomas Sheridan, The Art of Punning, 408.
82Louis Untermeyer, "The Lowest Form of Wit," Heavens (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. 1922), 107-112.
83This is ascribed to Swift in an editor's note to "The Art of Punning" in The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, D.D., Vol 8 (London: Nichols and Son, 1801), 405: "He greatly excelled in punning; a talent which, he said, no man affected to despise, but those that were without it." F. Elrington Ball, editor of The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, D.D., Vol 1 (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1910), makes the same assertion in Appendix II: "The talent of making puns, said Swift, no man ever despised that excelled in it." We cannot find the statement in Swift's works or correspondence. It may be something he said rather than wrote. Possibly it's in one of Mrs. Laetitia Pilkington's works (Jests for example).
84The line is sometimes attributed to Doug Larson and sometimes to Oscar Levant, but we can find no original source for it.
85Joseph Tartakovsky, "Pun for the Ages," 28 March 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/28/opinion/28Tartakovsky.html?_r=0. Judging by Google's search ranking this essay must be often read or linked to.
86The exception is Shakespeare's "grave man" pun from Romeo and Juliet.
87Alexander Pope, Peri Bathous; or The Art of Sinking in Poetry in Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope, intro and notes by Aubrey Williams, a Riverside Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969).
88The Spectator, No. 61, Thursday, May 10, 1711, in The Spectator; with notes and general index, Vol 1 (New York: Samuel Marks, 1826), 80-81.
89William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 87. Historically men wrote for other men. To characterize the pun as feminine was to disparage it since women were viewed as irrational (or nonrational), emotional, ill-informed and so on and so on. Female punsters and writers about the pun have received little attention. Elizabeth Carter's The Whole Art and Mystery of Punning (1735) is a humorous proposal for a treatise written by five female authors in fifteen volumes. It's in the tradition of mocking a subject (Carter didn't like puns) by claiming to explain and praise it. Among other things the authors will "lay down rules to divide, subdivide, compound, recompound, decompound, rack, torture, strain and quodlibetificate any word into a pun by nineteen several ways of false spelling" and supply such an "ample stock of ready wit" that the reader will only need a tolerable memory "without any assistance from the dull fatiguing process of learning, application or brains." Additionally, it will show "a new and curious method of drawing similies between things directly contrary" (Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter [London: F.C. and J. Rivington, 1807], 462). For more on The Whole Art and Mystery of Punning see Juliet Feibel, "Puns, Pedantry, and Polite Learning," in Lewd and Notorious: Female Trangresssions in the Eighteenth Century, Katherine Kittredge ed. (Univ of Michigan, 2003).
90Tom Hood, "Preface," The Comic Poems of Thomas Hood (London: E. Moxon, Son & Co., 1876), vii.
91Hood, "Faithless Nelly Gray," Whims and Oddities, 139-142).
92Tom Hood, "Preface," viii.
93Hood, "Lines to a Lady on her Departure for India," The Comic Annual, 80.
94Bernard Blackmantle, The Punster's Pocket-book, or The Art of Punning Enlarged (London: Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, 1826), 4.
95Hood, "Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg. A Golden Legend," The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 1 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 290.
Copyright © 2017 by George Tylutki. All rights reserved.