Sunday, July 3, 2016

Book Explores The Fun Of The Pun

I was in the town of Newburyport, Massachusetts just before July 4th.  It’s a nice water town nestled on the eastern seaboard, midway between Maine and Boston.  It still has a colonial look to it.  This quaint community of old brick buildings was settled in 1722.  It’s the kind of place you want to stroll through for a few hours, sit outside on a sidewalk bench, and eat ice cream while you people watch.

It’s also the kind of place perfectly set for a bookstore.  HUGO Bookstore shares an open wall with its neighbor, a café.  They are of equal size and certainly pair well together.  On one of the shelves of this flourishing indie since 1972 (it has two sister stores, one in Andover dating back to 1809) held a book of interest – The Pun Also Rises, by John Pollack.  Its subtitle more than adequately summarizes its contents:  “How the humble pun revolutionized language, changed history, and made wordplay more than some antics.”

The author is well-positioned to pen such a book.  The former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton was a winner of the World Pun Championship.  He boldly asserts that punning has revolutionized language and made possible the rise of modern civilization.

Puns are often used in advertising, pop music, literature, plays, politics, news media and academia.  Comedians like them too.  Pollack notes, however, that puns used to mean something other than what they’ve become.  He wrote:  “In ancient, Babylonia and Greece, to wit, punning often had religious implications and could even lead to armed conflict.”

Them’s fightin’ words!

“Critics and curmudgeons often deride the pun as the lowest form of humor," writes the author. “Others would counter that if that’s true, it would make punning the foundations of all humor.”

So what exactly is a pun?

“Webster’s dictionary defines a pun as ‘the humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest different meanings or applications or of words having the or nearly the same sound but different meanings,’” says the author.  “But such definitions don’t capture all forms of what we commonly consider puns a failure these dictionaries tacitly acknowledge with the additional, much broader definition of ‘play on words.’”

The writer correctly notes that “whether any given pun is clever, funny or neither always depends on the audience.”

Puns will always be with us, especially for those who love language and books and who recognize there’s power in using puns.  Did we need a whole book on puns?  Maybe not, though it is an interesting exploration into how we can benefit from using puns.  I leave you with a few select excerpts:

1.      “Another close cousin of these transposition puns is the chiasmus derived from the Greek word for cross-wise arrangement.  A chiasmus simply reverses the order of words in similar phrases to give them different meanings  For instance, an epitaph to a nineteenth-century musician summed up his life as follows:  “Stephen beat time, now time beats Stephen.”  In a different context, movie star Mae West once quipped that ‘it’s not the men in my life that count – it’s the life in my men.’”

2.      “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, is 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.  Which isn’t to say that one can’t be creative and funny with irony or sarcasm, as Jerry Seinfeld has proven to hilarious effect. “

3.      “Richard Lederer, author of Get Thee to a Punnery and many other books on language and humor, argues that puns help us find such meaning in a chaotic world.  “Human beings love uniting things that seem disparate,” He said. “We love finding significance in what appears to be swirling data.”  A former English teacher, Lederer believes that the increasing use of digital technology actually heightens people’s inclination and ability to make connections, both logically and lexically.  ‘I think we’re in a renaissance for puns.’”

4.      “This observation would likely ring true to many of his contemporaries, and to every generation that has gone before. Language has always been in flux as words, spelling and grammar constantly mutate, along with meaning.  Trying to control this evolution is like squeezing a fistful of sand – the harder you grip, the more it slips away.  Over the course of human history entire civilizations, languages and alphabets have risen and fallen, even some that long seemed invincible.  But through all of this epic change, over tens of thousands of years, puns and punsters have always survived.  Often, it was they who actually drove such change.

“Inevitably, some people will never like punning because it fogs up the lens of clarity through which they view the world and impose order, or at least the illusion of order.  But if puns seem, at times, to confuse, they actually enlighten us through both laughter and insight.  They keep us from taking ourselves too seriously, and sharpen our capacity for creative thinking.  Ultimately, puns keep our minds alert, engaged and nimble in this quickening world, revealing new connections and fresh interpretations.  And that’s why, even as we hurtle into a future of uncertain opportunities, puns will always be more than some antics.”

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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