Puns Don’t Kill People: An Almost-History of Puns

The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics
by John Pollack
Gotham Books, 211 pp., $22.50

Puns or Guns? The joke of this title isn’t a pun; or is it?

We determine a word’s meaning from a variety of cues, not just sound, syntax, and grammar but also context and inflection, all of which collude to make or break any given pun. Pun and gun aren’t perfect homophones, but if not a pun, what kind of joke is this? A “substitution,” as Freud would have it? A portmanteau of some sort? A mere play on words?

In his similarly troubly titled book The Pun Also Rises, former presidential speech and travel writer John Pollack wisely ignores the difficult issues of classification and linguistics and instead constructs a brief, often entertaining, rarely enlightening history of the pun.

 

An excellent place to store condoms.

The High Art of Low Puns

As long as we’ve had language, humanity it seems has lived, and even died, by the pun. Indeed, rather than beginning his study in 35,000 BCE with what he points to as the first example of humans playing with significance, a fertility statue that looks one way like the torso of a corpulent woman and another like an erect cock that scholars have dubbed “the penis Venus”, Pollack begins with with an anecdote of a fatal duel in an 18th century cafe over the accent of a classical Greek word.

An instance of senseless violence to the contemporary ear, but, for millennia puns were no laughing matter. Ancient Sumerians attached sacred, metaphysical significance to the occurrence of puns, and Greek and Roman orators considered the pun a powerful rhetorical tool for persuasion. Only in recent history has the pun become “the lowest form of humor”. Why is this? English snobbery gets most of the blame, as the pun’s declining stature seems to have coincided with London becoming a hub of the world economy and class anxiety, but theories range from the the authoritarian impulse to control language to conservative queasiness over ambiguity, to petty jealousy on the part of those less adept with wordplay.

Conveniently, the pun’s ill repute has done little to stem its popularity. Despite noting a decline in its use as a vehicle for American comedy, Pollack sees great things in the pun’s future. Curmudgeons might begroan their prevalence, but Pollack sees puns everywhere he looks, in advertisements, Google Doodles, and in the SMSs of children and teens across the country, and Pollack couldn’t be happier.

Punanswered Questions

While I too welcome a new golden age of punning, the staggering weakness of his book gives me little reason to put faith in his prediction. Despite many anecdotes, neurological studies and examples of the pun’s centrality to our relationship with language, the book offers only a cursory glance of the social function of puns. For all the power of transcendence, subversion, and humor with which he credits the pun, evidence is certainly in order and, in the field of pun studies, sorely lacking. It may be true that punning thrives among the oppressed, but so does propaganda. Perhaps the two are connected; perhaps punning serves as a protest, a counter-propaganda, or as a coping mechanism, conflating the larger absurdities of life with the lesser absurdities of language. Or, perhaps, people enjoy punning and will do so until oppressors find a why to suppress this too. Maybe those who express incredulity towards the humor of puns express incredulity towards transcendence in general.

I don’t know, and neither, it seems, does Pollack, but, without essaying these questions and the many like them that arise, this book remains only a modest contribution to the study of puns and their significance to human experience.