Why We Pun -- or, Why Not To Groan

"There are two kinds of jokes: those that make you laugh, and those that make you say 'That's funny'." It's an old truism, and only mildly accurate. I intend to argue here that there are many joke-related utterances which are exceptions, particularly my dear friends: puns. There is a pervasive misconception that the sole purpose of a pun is to inspire laughter, and that a failure to achieve this end merits that most crude of responses, the groan. Rather, the pun's purpose is often merely to play with language at its most fundamental, hence it is an encouragement not necessarily to laugh, but merely to observe, and thus to think and/or smile.

To that end, I here call upon examples from three different types of puns. These classifications are (as far as I know) my own. I do not intend this to be a scientific study, nor to be as exhaustive or as thought-out as two sublime books, Get Thee to a Punnery and Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar. Those books do, however, demonstrate that puns are alive and well, and that they reveal more about the human psyche than a casual observer might assume.

 

Phonemes. First comes one of my most beloved types of puns: those that deal with the slightest modification in language, a single phoneme. A phoneme is a lone, isolated sound -- for example, the English "s" or "sh", but not "st", which contains an "s" sound followed by a "t" sound. The classic demonstration of fun with phonemes is the spoonerism, a genre allegedly and unintentionally invented by the early-twentieth-century Oxford don, William Archibald Spooner, who often inverted the initial phonemes of two consecutive words. My personal favorite example may have been uttered by Spooner while inquiring at the office of his superior: "Is the bean dizzy?". In this case, Spooner did not intend the phonetic inversion, nor did he intend the resultant humor; it was, if I may, a kind of linguistic pathology. Other examples of this single-phoneme play would be the various lists of books or movies that have just one letter removed: Schindler's Lit, or The Da Vinci Cod, or Here's Waldo. A few years ago, my Facebook friends and I indulged ourselves and came up with a few hundred such examples. It is entertaining to imagine what these new stories might be about: a war hero with a marijuana habit, a tale of intrigue on a fishing boat, or pictures of a guy dressed in red and white stripes standing prominently in front of a crowd.

Syllables. Closely related would be jokes that deal with complete syllables, however these seem surprisingly rare. In the few days that I have been formulating this essay, I haven't thought of a single example. No doubt they exist, and I encourage readers to suggest some in the comments. A few theories from the dusty recesses of my mind, where lie recollections of an undergrad linguistics course, come forward to explain this dearth of examples. But they are beyond my purpose here.

Words. When considering words, let us limit the discussion to homonyms. Two quick examples will serve. First: "A termite walks into a bar and asks: 'Is the bar tender here'?". I love these homonymic puns because they are far more interesting when spoken rather than when read. That example renders the joke blisteringly obvious because you can see the space between "bar" and "tender", whereas a talented raconteur may obscure the implied pause. As a more advanced example, I offer the following favorite: "Why do the French only have one egg for breakfast? Because one egg is un œuf." I have told this joke even to those who do not know French, but somehow they intuit that œuf means "egg" even while processing that it is "enough". Here is bilingual homonymic play at its best.

Phrases. In this case I draw attention to the genre of displaced phrases, or phrases which both belong in the context and do not. These tend to be slightly longer puns, such as: "A man goes to his doctor and says: 'Doctor, Doctor! I think I'm Tom Jones!' The doctor replies: 'It's not unusual.'". When I first heard this joke, I was only vaguely aware of the song "It's not unusual", and I had most assuredly no idea that its singer was Tom Jones, but I could figure it out from the context, and laughed immediately. What adds to the mirth is that a doctor might reply "It's not unusual" to any number of symptoms. It is that phrase, which belongs in a doctor's office but not typically as a punch line, that forms the linguistic turn of play. My last example (hold your rejoicing, please) is from a T-shirt I recently purchased. Its four lines read: "Live Long and / May the Force Be / Ever in Your Favor. / So Say We All." Each line is a catchphrase from a different science fiction franchise, and their joining is unexpected. But even more than that observation, I would argue that each of the four source phrases are, essentially, interchangeable. ("So say we all" from Battlestar Galactica is a bit of an outlier, as it is purely a response, but that response holds within it a similar sentiment to the other three.) Here is a pun involved four phrases, each one a little out of place.

 

Of course the guaranteed way to destroy the humor in a joke is to analyze the joke. But, to a certain extent, that is my point. Or rather, sometimes the point of the pun is not to invoke humor, but to experience the marvel of language for its own sake. Puns explore the interplay of language and experience. Consider, for example, whether it is the language that causes a situation to be funny, or whether it is the hypothetical situation imposed by the joke that renders the language to be funny. By informing the nature of certain situations, the language can reveal the manner in which the human brain is organized. Yikes, that's a bit too much Chomsky. 

So, let the humor be destroyed from time to time. This does not detract from the ability to remark upon and enjoy the nature of language itself. When someone tells you a pun, laughter is not necessary. Sometimes a simple pause or smile may suffice. In any case, I encourage all to avoid the groan or the facepalm. This is especially true when replying to a pun through an electronic medium, for a verbalized groan can accompany a smile which is not conveyed through the cold medium of type. Groans are sometimes almost a form of abuse: an insult not only to the teller, but to the pun, and thus to language itself. Sometimes the teller's purpose is not even to inspire laughter at all: witness Spooner, or even myself, as I tend to tell more puns when I am experiencing social anxiety. And in any case, puns are a way to unify us, for language is something we share.

You see, the punster has offered you a gift. He or she has privately marveled in something remarkable about how humans communicate, and then chose to share that marvel. It is not always a funny marvel. And perhaps its observation is not timely. But it is interesting. A pun says something fundamental about about how we relate to each other, about how we persist or flourish despite changes within and around us, about how we deal with our failures, about what it means to be human. So you needn't feel pressure to laugh, or even to say "That's funny." Rather, enjoy the moment, for in that pun is contained a microcosm of all the good to be found in humankind.

4 Comments

  • You touched on one pun-telling difficulty, that of translating a pun (or a simple play-on-words for that matter) into a foreign language. I never really managed it.
    Be careful, however, I know a punster who told so many puns he was locked in a closet. Undaunted, he shouted, “Open the door!”

  • I think my groans are elicited by the feeling of being set up and then duped. When the contrived situation is introduced (A jailbird, a ballerina, and a lawyer walk into a bar.), I anticipate an amusing story or a moment of delight. When I don’t see the wordplay coming or when an elaborate set-up ends abruptly in a very small payoff, I’m disappointed, even as I get the linguistic insight. (“Get past it,” says the lawyer.) But I do enjoy sharing the delight of the pun-teller himself!

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