To Pun Or Not To Pun?

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To Pun Or Not To Pun?

Postby Lomax on February 15th, 2017, 4:05 pm 

In his funny and astute critique of the round table of mental masturbation, Mensa, Christopher Hitchens writes:

Christopher Hitchens wrote:Perhaps as a result of this kind of insecurity, Mensa gatherings are noted for two recurrent themes—the making of puns and the forming of viciously opposed factions. Mensa members “love puns,” said Gabriel Werba, a former director of development for Mensa America, “and I happen to believe the worse a pun the better it is. Outside of Mensa you don’t have that appreciation.”

Puns are the lowest form of verbal facility.


Similarly on his "Guide to the Arts" podcast with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, Ricky Gervais said of Shakespeare:

Ricky Gervais wrote:Some say maybe the greatest literary genius in history. I'm not a fan. And I'll tell you why I'm not a fan. One reason and one reason only. Nothing to do with the structure, his themes...fantastic. The pun. Oh, I can't stand the pun.

...

I suppose it's the people that have taken on the pun. It just reminds me of a bloke with a beard and a pipe at a party doing puns. You know. And it's things like, in Shakespeare, like "I'll take their maidenheads" and you have to look at your Brodie's Notes to go "okay, cut off their heads and take their virginity. Oh, brilliant". You can't explain a joke in retrospect, you don't laugh if it's then explained to you.


He goes on to call the pun "the lowest form of wit", and gives examples, such as a sign saying "keep off the grass" in a highly self-satisfied reference to cannabis use.

Similarly, using "quibble" in the sense of "pun", voracious lexicographer Samuel Johnson expressed his quibbles with Shakespeare:

Samuel Johnson wrote:A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller! He follows it to all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible.


Is any of this fair to Shakespeare? In the Taming of the Shrew, Hortensio and Lucento argue while tuning a violin:

William Shakespeare wrote:HORTENSIO (as LITIO): Madam, ’tis now in tune.

LUCENTIO (as CAMBIO): All but the base.

HORTENSIO (as LITIO): The base is right; ’tis the base knave that jars.

At the time I enjoyed this for its wit and frivolity, but in retrospect, it does seem like the situation was tortuously building to the pun all along. And it does seem like something a boring smug uncle (not necessarily your own) would say at a dinner party, doesn't it? Can we judge Shakespeare by the standards of stamp collectors and wine tasters, or is it wrong to let them annex his shrewd device?

Curiously, two of Hitchens's (and my) favourite novelists, Nabokov and Joyce, were avid for the pun. The sinister narrator of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, mulls on the slight linguistic difference between "therapist" and "the rapist" and wonders if the moral difference is equally slight. Not one of the book's comedic high points, but there's no reason why puns can't be in the service of something other than humour. Joyce's whole career descended (or ascended, or transcended) into a complex web of puns, culminating with the brilliant and barely readable Finnegan's Wake. More curiously still, Hitchens deployed the technique himself. Startled to find it was his turn to be at the podium in a debate, he said "If I can't be erect I can at least be upright". In the question-and-answer segment of a lecture he gave at Politics and Prose on atheism, a rambling interrogator asked him repeatedly if he was a (metaphysical) materialist, in between apologising for not having read Hitchens's book closely enough to glean the answer for himself. Hitchens replied "As long as you got a receipt I don't care. Yes, I am a materialist. Believe me."

The pun has other high profile defenders. Alfred Hitchcock (Ha! Cock!) remarked "Puns are the highest form of literature." Some of my favourite lyrics are puns. Gym Class Heroes sang "Baby girl's a queen. But a queen's just a pawn with a bunch of fancy moves". The Beautiful South adeptly combine pun with metaphor in "How Long's a Tear Take to Dry": the guilty male lover sings "You're so sweet", to which his unimpressed and unforgiving other half replies "The flowers smell sweeter, the closer you are to the grave".

So are puns good or bad form? Does it depend on the individual pun? What distinguishes a good pun from a bad one? Laughing stock from badinage? Perhaps a homophone depends on the speaker? Fit to be barred, or fit for a bard?
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Re: To Pun Or Not To Pun?

Postby Braininvat on February 15th, 2017, 5:03 pm 

For me, it comes down to spontaneous wit and cleverness. (plus some ribaldry always helps) For example, this anecdote which I heard when in London, over some argument before the city council concerning 221 Baker St. Apparently, there are two buildings in that area, each fairly close numerically to the correct Sherlockian address and the owners of each building, wanting to put a plaque up to claim theirs as the fictitious location of the famous sleuth, argued at length that their property was more deserving of the honor. This went on for some time until a weary councilmember cried, "A plaque on both your houses!"

Spontaneous, funny, and references the Bard.
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Re: To Pun Or Not To Pun?

Postby Braininvat on February 15th, 2017, 5:25 pm 

Pre-packaged puns appeal to me less, especially if they are the punchline of what's called in the U.S. a "shaggy dog story." I used to have an office mate who was overly fond of them and you could see everyone's heart sinking when it was clear he was going to unleash one. A typical pun from him would be something like "Have you heard about the rancher who gave all his land to his boys? When they grew up, they decided to all work on the ranch and rename it The Focus Ranch. Why? Because that's where the sons raise meat!" *





* [sun's rays meet]

* did you cringe or groan? I think that was the goal, generally.
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Re: To Pun Or Not To Pun?

Postby Lomax on February 15th, 2017, 7:10 pm 

Braininvat » February 15th, 2017, 10:25 pm wrote:* did you cringe or groan? I think that was the goal, generally.

That's the weird thing about good bad humour. I use it because I enjoy others' pain. My father and his wife (who live in Australia) have this routine: when they part, one says "see you shortly" and the other says "don't call me 'Shortly'". It's past the point of being funny by virtue of being unfunny. One day when I was visiting his wife was tidying the kitchen and said "What shall I do with these tubs?" Before he could reply I got in with "Don't call him 'Tubs'". They abandoned the whole joke mechanic thereafter. My proudest achievement.
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Re: To Pun Or Not To Pun?

Postby Positor on February 15th, 2017, 11:05 pm 

Time for a limerick:

I once heard a wise observation
On how to improve education:
If children have ardour,
They'll want to try harder —
They just need enough aspiration.
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Re: To Pun Or Not To Pun?

Postby Eclogite on February 16th, 2017, 12:36 am 

Among workmates, friends and family I am known for extensive punning. Periodically I explain the following:

- Puns are not intended to be funny
- Puns are not intended to be witty
- Puns are a practical means of exercising and developing ones lateral thinking skills
- Puns establish relationships between normally distinct variables or entities causing one to view them from a new perspective
- Pun creation hones ones ability to think creatively
- You may now choose between receiving the collateral benefits of having heard the pun, or you may groan and remain unimaginative
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Re: To Pun Or Not To Pun?

Postby Lomax on February 16th, 2017, 4:02 am 

Can I groan and reap the benefits? I think the ten puns I snuck into my OP are only of the groan-inducing variety. And do puns have a place in literature?
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Re: To Pun Or Not To Pun?

Postby Braininvat on February 16th, 2017, 10:37 am 

I read Pale Fire years ago and it seemed there was some significant wordplay there. There were, cough, Shades of meaning that eluded me, I'm sure. It kind of bugs me that I wasn't able to follow all of Nabokov's entomological references.
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Re: To Pun Or Not To Pun?

Postby Lomax on February 16th, 2017, 2:52 pm 

A further controversial opinion:

Martin Amis wrote:The great grammarian and usage-watcher Henry Fowler attacked the "assumption that puns are per se contemptible…Puns are good, bad, or indifferent…" Actually, Fowler was wrong. "Puns are the lowest form of verbal facility", Christopher [Hitchens] elsewhere concedes. But puns are the result of an anti-facility: they offer disrespect to language, and all they manage to do is make words look stupid.
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