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The Perennial Pun

August 7, 2012

Often when the news becomes too depressing and the political debates too boring, I turn to my files of very old and very bad puns for some comic relief. It’s a habit I’ve never outgroan. (Sorry about that.)

Actually, I am not a good punster, but my late husband, Grant Dillman, was stricken with paronomasia, i.e., the nagging urge to engage in wordplay.  A long-time newspaper reporter and editor, Grant coined puns as easily as he created headlines.

I believe he minted the phrase “forgive us our press passes,” but I’m not certain. I am certain that he coined these groaners:

*Is a hockey player who can’t score down on his puck?

*Is a baseball player anti-union if he protests a called strike?

*When a man tiptoes through a whore house, is he pussyfooting around?

And many other pun-ishing phrases.

I started my collection of puns years ago, in self-defense. Today this is filled with puns of all sizes and styles, but each has the requisite double entendre or other semantic incongruity.

The short pun often involves a tongue-in-cheek definition. Here, for instance, is how punsters describe a few things:

  1. A satellite—something you use to find your horse.
  2. Your doctor’s advice–M.D. promises
  3. Your afternoon nap–a matinee idle.
  4. Cereals loaded with sugar—cereal killers.
  5. Politics—something that makes the future moron certain.

The authentic pun can also be long, given the proper dose of wordplay. Allow me to cite two illustrations from my oldest files.

The first concerns a thief who stole several paintings from the Louvre in Paris. He slips by security but is captured when his van runs out of gas just two blocks away. Asked how he could make such a mistake after masterminding such a crime, he said (this really hurts): “I had no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh.”

The second involves two southern men on a business trip to Boston. They have been advised that in the east the word for “fish of the day” is scrad.  En route by taxi from the airport to their hotel, one man asks, “Where can we find top-of-the-line scrad in Boston.”  Turning around the driver says, “I’ve been asked this question many times, in many ways, but never in the past plu-perfect subjunctive.”

The pun has drifted in and out of fashion through the years. Its most recent surge of popularity occurred in early 2011 following the publication of John Pollack’s book, “The Pun Also Rises.” A former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, Pollack is a paronomaniac himself who won the 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship. The specified subject was “external body parts.”  Pollack’s entry: “I’m going to chinnel my energy into coming up with a new pun.”

His lengthy book, however, is not a compendium of puns. Instead, Pollack traces the history and significance of the pun from its roots in the ancient world, through its glory days in the Shakespearean years into today’s world where it is regarded as an easy and inoffensive way to cope with fears, anxieties and political rhetoric.

“Puns appear so often and in such diverse forms and cultures throughout history that they appear to reflect something fundamental, enduring and perhaps even universal about human experience,” Pollack wrote.

The pun is often criticized for its unbearable triteness of being, but it has also won many notable followers. Shakespeare was a punster. Regard how he opens “Richard III” with a play on son/sun: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.”

Oscar Wilde used the pun to spoof himself with phrases such as, “Work is the ruin of the drinking class.” To Ambrose Pierce the pun was “a form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.”  Coleridge declared that the pun was harmless “because it never excites envy.”  Leave it to Edgar Allen Poe to write, astutely: “Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are least able to utter them.”

Many pun addicts will apologize, half-heartedly, for their linguistic legerdemain, knowing that this produces more groans than grins.  My late husband, Grant, did so occasionally.

“If my practice of turning a felicitous phrase occasionally is annoying, please tell me,” he said once, feigning sincerity.

“I would,” I responded, “but it would be to no avail.”

“Then we have no problems,” he said with a smug grin. “To know avail is to love one.”

Gwen Gibson

From → humor

One Comment
  1. Bruce permalink

    good one! i found it punny!

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