The BBC has a wonderful article by Sally Davies on puns, basically a review of John Pollack’s book The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics. The article offers different theories of puns, most of them ludicrous. (Why are “power” and “coping with despair” considered valid categories of explanation, while “because they are funny” is apparently not?) Puns have often been condemned, though they are used by by such luminaries as Shakespeare and JESUS (so there can’t be anything wrong with them). The article includes some world-class puns. Read it, linked below. Here is a sample:
“[Puns] fell out of favour during the Enlightenment, when the form’s reliance on imprecision and silliness was out of kilter with the prevailing spirit of sophistication and rational inquiry.
“Arrant puns” were the subject of attacks by the likes of Joseph Addison, 18th Century London’s pre-eminent literary tastemaker. He decried them as debased witticisms and exulted that they had been “banished out of the learned world”.
Yet Addison’s campaign was not enough to expunge the pun from the capital’s coffee-houses, where the poet Nicholas Rowe once fell victim to a pun-fuelled prank, described in The Percy Anecdotes. After nagging one of his fellow patrons to borrow a diamond-encrusted snuff box, the owner succumbed, but not before scribbling in its lid the Greek letters phi and rho, or “Fie, Rowe!” An onlooker spoke for many when he remarked that “a man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket”.
But puncraft did not always suffer from such bad PR.
The Roman orators Cicero and Quintilian believed that “paronomasia”, the Greek term for punning, was a sign of intellectual suppleness and rhetorical skill.
Jesus himself was a prodigious punster. His declaration that “upon this rock I will build my church” famously played on the way Peter’s name echoed the Ancient Greek word for rock, “petra”.
Jesus may have also salted his speech with puns on Aramaic words, the language of everyday communication. When he condemns the Pharisees for letting punctilious piety blind them to mercy, Jesus calls them “blind guides, which strain at a gnat [galma], and swallow a camel [gamla]“. . . .
The characters in [Shakespeare's] plays that begin the bawdy jests and elaborate badinage are almost always pages and buffoons, commoners at the mercy of their aristocratic overlords. Puns give them a cloak of deniability – the joke permits ordinary folk to make light of their social betters without violating the norms of respect.
Sex and death were these characters’ favoured subjects – Shakespeare seemed to intuit what Freud would argue some 300 years later, that humour helps us cope with the terrifying and taboo.
So in this scene from Hamlet, the tortured prince banters with a gravedigger in the midst of his macabre work, playing on the semantics of the word “lie”:
Hamlet: Whose grave is this, sirrah?
Gravedigger: Mine, sir.
Hamlet: I think it be thine, indeed; for thou liest in’t.
Gravedigger: You lie out on’t, sir, and therefore it is not yours: for my part, I do not lie in’t, and yet it is mine.
Hamlet: Thou dost lie in’t, to be in’t and say it is thine: ’tis for the dead, not for the quick; therefore thou liest.
Now o-pun your mind and pun-leash your punning ability, putting your favorite puns in the comments.