Pun With Language: The Role of the Pun Throughout the History of the World

Pun With Language: The Role of the Pun Throughout the History of the World

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Pun With Language: The Role of the Pun Throughout the History of the World

“In his protest days, Gandhi walked everywhere. From the North of India to the South, Gandhi traveled it all, all without shoes. And he didn’t brush his teeth, either, so his breath was pretty bad. Since he walked so far and did not eat much in the way of food, he got very thin and physically weak. All in all, he was a super-calloused, fragile mystic, vexed with halitosis!”

Have you heard jokes such as this before? Jokes that cause you to groan sooner than laugh, and to hurl random objects at the utterer? Perhaps you heard them at a party somewhere, or when you were with a friend. Or even in the workplace. Such jokes are everywhere, causing even the most good-humored person to groan in agony at the cheesiness of it all. Puns, the mainstream culture labels them, because to hear them is ‘pun’ishment. But how did the concept of punmanship come about? And, more importantly, why do so many people take it upon themselves to tell these ‘shaggy dog stories’ despite such negative reinforcement (i.e. groans, thrown pillows, comments such as “You are so not funny!”, etc…)? The answers may surprise you.

An acquaintance of mine once said that "A pun is a lower form of humor, just like a bun is a lower form of bread." I think this sums up nicely the general conception of puns in modern times. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for a pun well done, we footnote the glorious tidbit of humor with the ever-insidious, “No pun intended.” But good punmanship has not always found itself on the permanent hate list of joke aficionados.

As far back as Ancient Greece, and probably before, puns were made. The most famous pun from this time is the classic translation of Jesus’ statement to Peter: "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church." To an English speaking audience, this would not seem out of the ordinary at all, just another passage from the Bible without a pun in sight. But when one considers the language of one of the original translations of the Bible, Greek, the circumstances become much clearer. In Greek, the name Peter translates as ‘Petros,’ while the term rock translates as ‘petra.’ So, when those words are translated into Greek within the full context of the sentence, the sentence itself reads: “Thou art Petros and upon this petra I will build my church.

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” Get it?
Even the great Roman philosopher and orator of no-small-repute, Cicero, was not above the occasional bit of witticism in pun form. When most people suffer the indignity of having the gravesite of their father plowed by a bumbling miscreant, they would take to arms immediately, or at least severely scold the perpetrator. Not so with Cicero.
Instead of taking the obvious route of lashing out at the offender, Cicero opted to severely ‘pun’ish him, saying "This is truly to cultivate a father's memory."

But the first great incorrigible punster in history was the great William Shakespeare.
The Bard himself made over 1000 puns in the combined body of his works. Most of these puns were spoken by fools or court jesters, but a fair amount of ‘pun’ny lines were given to his leads, such as Benedick, the wit-cracking, love-defying protagonist of “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the lovers of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” who humorously tear apart the Rude Mechanicals’ performance of “Pyramus and Thisbie” with a stream of cleverly devised puns. Even Shakespeare’s play titles were not spared from his potent punnery. To use an earlier example, the title of his “Much Ado About Nothing” was, in and of itself, one giant pun. The actual play of “Much Ado About Nothing” contains many references to the noting of things. Whether it is Benedick noting a conversation by several of his friends about his love life, or the inept watchmen noting Don John, the play’s antagonist, and his scheming, noting abounds in this play. And so it is fitting that Mr. Shakespeare chose the title “Much Ado About Nothing”, with ‘nothing’ replacing ‘noting’, in reference to both the outcome of the play, and the fact that a great deal of noting goes on.

Puns have not only been used in literature, though. In times of war, puns have been used to relay messages back and forth in simple, ambiguous, yet at the same time witty, terms. Perhaps the most famous example of this, albeit a very unlikely one, came about following the defeat and retreat of the Spanish Armada by England. Sir Frances Drake, the man given command over the fleets of England, allegedly sent Queen Elizabeth a note bearing the word “Cantharides”, the name of an aphrodisiac also known as ‘Spanish fly’.
A more likely example of this kind of behavior among military commanders comes with the 1843 conquest of the Indian province, Sind. Wrote General Napier to his commanders after conquering the province: "Peccavi" (Latin for ‘I have sinned’).

With this much history on their side, it is a ‘pun’der that puns have not achieved a more socially acceptable role in modern civilization. Instead of being praised for making a pun, pun artists are frequently treated as if they had just expelled foul gas from a bodily orifice. One commonly held explanation for this sad state is the theory of “Punis Envy.” This theory suggests that the main reason people in general dislike puns is because they themselves did not make them. Said Oscar Levant, "A pun is the lowest form of humor - when you don't think of it first." The other side to this argument, however, is the point of view that no matter how it is made, it is impossible for a pun to inspire any form of jealousy in its listeners. Samuel Taylor Coleridge summed up this side of the debate nicely when he stated during a lecture on Shakespeare that punning "may be the lowest, but at all events is the most harmless kind of wit, because it never excites envy." Harsh words from an opium addict…
Opium addicts and “Punis Envy” aside, the root of the punning problem seems to lie solely in humor tastes. It has been centuries since the days when the world marveled at a well crafted pun, and tastes in humor have certainly changed with the years. Much like tastes in beauty, food, and music, human humor taste is a fickle one, changing and adapting to fit the circumstances and culture that it is thrust into. Humanity as a species has changed in the years since Shakespeare penned his last pun, so it only makes sense that our likes and dislikes in the world of comedy have also changed. However, changing tastes are no reason to cease fine punmanship, and there remain those in the human race (myself included) that love nothing more than to break out with a witty play on words when in a large group of people and watch as groans and grimaces overcome the company. Perhaps it’s some sort of visceral satisfaction at seeing others in a painless sort of misery of one’s own devising. Or maybe it is the feeling of outsmarting one’s compatriots. Whatever it is, though, the old saying still rings true: “The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees—I want punny. That’s what I want.”
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