Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Lowest Form of Wit?

  • Did you hear about the guy who got a job as a baker because he kneaded the dough? ("Needed the dough"—get it? Snort, snort!)    
  • Why are fish so smart? They swim in schools! (Seriously, folks. I kill myself!)

These are the kind of jokes your children or grandchildren will tell you over and over, laughing with joyful abandon at their own cleverness. 

Jokes like these probably gave rise to the popular notion that “A pun is the lowest form of wit.” For too many years, English teachers have taught this heresy, falsely attributed to an assortment of famous writers, as an axiom.

I disagree. (And why are you not surprised?)

The fancy-pants name for a pun is paronomasia, a big word that by its utter pomposity, confers a bit of dignity on the oft-maligned pun. But either way, it means “a play on words"--an intentional confusion between two words that sound alike or between two meanings of a word. 

Puns go way back to the ancient Egyptians, Mayans, Chinese, and Hebrews--and continue right on up to some of the most recent languages on Planet Earth--computer languages. 

Even math geeks have puns.

  • There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don't.
  • Old math teachers never die. They just become irrational.
  • The ratio of an igloo’s circumference to its diameter = Eskimo Pi

Sure, some puns make us groan, but some are really clever, amusing, literary, or even inspirational. Some of the coolest ones are in the Old Testament, but it's easy to skip right over them, because we don’t know the original language.

Adam’s name was a pun. In Hebrew, adam is the word for man, and adamah is the name for the ground. Remember the story of how God made Adam from the dust of the earth? The story is remembered in his name.

There’s an English language pun that goes like this: 
  • Need to build an ark? I Noah guy. (I know a guy. . .) 

But Noah’s name was also a pun in Hebrew, because his name sounds like the word for “comfort,” and his father Lamech said, “This kid will comfort us in the painful labors caused by the cursed ground.” So every time they called little Noah to dinner, they were reminding themselves that God would comfort them.

The Bible is full of names like this. Babel sounds like the Hebrew for “confused.” Isaac means “he laughs”; Jacob means “he grasps the heel.” And if you know the stories,  you will get the puns. 

Shakespeare was so fond of puns that Samuel Johnson complained about the Bard's penchant for punning in his "Preface to Shakespeare."

In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Hamlet refers to his step-father Claudius as “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” What a great play on words—especially if you look at “kind” as a shortened form of “kindred.”

In Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio tries to persuade Romeo to attend a ball, Romeo replies, "Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead So stakes me to the ground I cannot move." The pun is sole (of a shoe) and soul (the essence of a person). But the effect is lyrical and melancholy.

Comedian Fred Allen said, "Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted."

Sometimes we just get too grown-up, stuffy, and literary to appreciate the joy of puns.

  • Two silk worms had a race, but ended up in a tie.
  • Some cannibals ate a missionary and got a taste of religion.

The lowest form of wit? It seems to me that the lowest form of humor is humor designed to hurt somebody, to make the speaker feel superior to the target. 

And as for puns--hey, if they're good enough for Shakespeare and the Bible, they're good enough for me. And in the right context, they can be funny or thought-provoking. Maybe, like blowing bubbles, they are one of those childhood pleasures we should never outgrow.

1 comment:

  1. I love puns, too! Sometimes I get myself in stitches just because I think of one. And then I have to explain the groaner to those around me. >.<