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Book Notes: “The Pun Also Rises” by John Pollack

Last Christmas, my sister got me this book because she knew I loved a good pun. I read it. It wasn’t an amazing, life-changing book. But it did have parts that made me smile. Like this simple statement about puns:

Critics and curmudgeons often deride the pun as the lowest form of humor. Others would counter that if that’s true, it would make punning the foundation of all humor. (xxii)

But the book wasn’t just a collection of funny puns. It was quite the opposite: a kind of critical defense of the intellectual value of the pun. The author (apparently a champion punner – something I didn’t even knew existed until I read this book) argues that puns were, for a long time, a respected form of intellectual endeavor:

The common expectation that puns should always be funny, or die in the attempt, is a relatively modern development. (65) For thousands of years, the [pun] had commanded respect for revealing divine wisdom, as a poetic expression of life’s inherent contradictions, and as an elegant rhetorical tool to communicate multiple ideas at once.(85)

So before diving into an analysis of punning, the author defends the pun as, well, something worth defending right at the beginning of the book. An argument I was all for :)

The Classification of Puns

There are two kinds of puns: homophonic and homographic.

Homophonic puns exploit words that sound alike, either generally or identically...By contrast, homographic puns are based on etymologically distinct words, spelled the same, that have more than one meaning, such as bunk.(10)

Homophonic: “the excitement at the circus is in tents” (“in tents” and “intense” are two words the listener will hear and have to distinguish between).

Homographic: “An architect in prison complained that the walls were not built to scale”. Note the dual meaning of “scale”: 1) the building’s relative proportions, as seen by the architect, or 2) the difficulty someone might encounter when attempting to escape over the prison walls. The beauty of the pun here is that both definitions work.

Those damn homophonic puns, though, are always the more difficult ones to express online, as you hear them in your head, but once you type them out you realize “crap this isn’t going to come across right” because you have to type it with literal spelling. Here’s an example of a pun that, when you see it, you immediately grasp the pun. But when you hear it, it can take a second to grasp:

How many ears does Davy Crockett have? Three: a right ear, a left ear, and a wild frontier.

Favorite Excerpts

The following is just a collection of excerpts from the book (in no particular order) that stood out to me.

Throughout the book, the author makes the case that punning is an artistic, creative, even rebellious exercise in connecting ideas. Even more, punning is an exercise in being open-minded, because by nature it is the practice of looking for alternative meanings. These excerpts touch on this point:

As children learn to spot and evaluate secondary meanings in common words and phrases, they’re really learning how to think critically. To get the joke, they have to overlook the obvious to explore other possible interpretations of what they have just heard...Though often dismissed as juvenile, riddles and knock-knock jokes actually require significant powers of abstraction, a deliberate subversion of rules, and a special appreciation for surprise. (xxiii)

Punning is all about connecting ideas, no matter how disparate (17)

Punning, of all arts and sciences, is the most extraordinary: for all others are circumscribed by certain bounds; but this alone is found to have no limits, because, to excel therein requires a more extensive knowledge of all things. (80)

Almost all conceivable toasts and sentiments in the world — social, political, warlike, agrarian, commercial, chivalrous, and so forth — are worn threadbare with frequent use, and it asks a vast deal of ingenuity well expended, to find some new, neat way of saying what has been often said already. (94)

puns reveal that the words we use to define the world around us are ultimately just arbitrary signs (145)

without learning to pun, we might just take speech at face value and wouldn’t necessarily learn to hunt for deeper, different or related meanings. (149)

An interesting observation about the differences between puns and irony/sarcasm:

Incidentally, both irony and sarcasm are, like puns, a way to say one thing and mean another. However, irony and sarcasm don’t suffer the pun’s poor reputation. Maybe this is because punning, which seeks to create a connection between words or ideas, inherently an attempt at intellectual construction. Irony and sarcasm, by contrast, tend to be acts of criticism or destruction. Generally speaking, it’s much harder to create than to criticize, and so fewer people are willing to take the risk. This may explain why many people arbitrarily prefer irony and sarcasm to punning, because they’re easier and safer. (110)

How punning can become more common — and necessary — as a society becomes more rigid about its norms (because you can no longer explicitly say what you mean, you have to dance around the issues):

Garry Gossen, the antorpoplogist, argues that the more rigid a society becomes, the greater its reliance on subtexts, especially puns, to address sensitive or taboo topics. “I think punning is a code for talking about what is socially awkward or difficult. They don’t do it just because it’s funny; they do it to comment on highly asymmetrical relations between genders, races and economic status,” he said. “The more rigid the rules of social class, ethnic and gender separation, the more likely it will be that punning — and related fun, with it — will be practiced as a way of mitigation the frustration.” (141)

An observation about how puns can be a linguistic hyperlink, a way to bridge two seemingly unconnected ideas. And through this bridge making, we as humans discover innovative, progressive ideas we had previously been unable to connect.

IN a way, the pun was humanity’s first hyperlink, a way to identify and articulate potential connections that aren’t necessarily or immediately apparent. Punning was and remains a way to sling a verbal rope, in an instant, across vast conceptual canyons. It is this same urge to imagine, explore and establish new connections that fuels creativity generally, and science specifically. Not that puns are a substitute for reason, but neither is reason a substitute for imagination. If imagination didn’t exist, what cause would reason have to set out on a given journey, to prove or disprove a given proposition? Puns reveal a mind free to roam frontiers of possibility, without shame or fear of being wrong. (143) ...entertaining multiple interpretations of any given set of data is not only good for science, but essential to the endeavor itself. Uncertainty, therefore, fuels curiosity and propels science forward. Similarly, ambiguity is a driving force for human progress (144)

This pun is a demonstration of the human capacity for creative, abstract association (note that this was by an Englishman, so the the phonetics of “sore” and “saw” when pronounced in the Queen’s English, are incredibly close)

There was a man in a house and he could not get out. The only furniture was a table. He rubbed his hands until they were sore. Then he sawed the table in half. Two halves made a whole. He shouted through the hole until he was hoarse, jumped on the horse and rode away.

Language, as an expression of thought, is intrinsically subjective. Controlling language is difficult, controlling meaning is effectively impossible (the innumerable interpretations of scripture is a perfect example of this).

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

One last good pun:

“Punning is a virtue that most effectually promotes the end of good fellowship.”...There are two ways to interpret this: fellowship as a goal of friendship, or the termination of a friendship. (81)