Where to Find Giant Snails

Love them or hate them, puns have been a fixture of language throughout the ages

IF YOU ARE a reticent punster, be aware that you represent the not-so-silent majority. It has been calculated that two-thirds of the jokes in a typical language collection rely on puns. The humour in language is often deliberate but many have posed this ludic question: To pun or not to pun?

Puns have been much maligned by a host of commentators. Freud derided puns as “cheap,” and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes assailed them as “verbicide.” Many writers in 17th- and 18th-century England, including John Dryden, Daniel Defoe and Joseph Addison, believed that the English language approached perfection and that the inherent ambiguity in puns created confusion and impoliteness.

Puns have had their defenders. Three hundred years ago, Henry Erskine countered the statement that “a pun is the lowest form of wit” by adding that “it is therefore the foundation of all wit,” and Oscar Levant opined that punning was the “lowest form of humour when you didn’t think of it first.”

Punning has been a language fixture through the ages. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus introduces himself to the Cyclops as Outis, which means “no man” in Greek. He then attacks the giant, who calls for reinforcement from his fellow monsters with the plea, “No man is killing me!” Naturally, no one rushes to his aid, proving that the pun is indeed mightier than the sword.

Cicero was another habitual grave punster. When a man plowed up the burial ground of his father, Cicero couldn’t resist interjecting, “This is truly to cultivate a father`s memory.”

In the Bible there are many puns on names. In Hebrew, adamah means ground and edom means red. The name Adam may derive from the red earth whence he came. The name Jacob is derived from the Hebrew word for heel (ah’kev), because Jacob held onto the heel of his older twin brother, Esau, at birth.

However, one might award Jesus the prize for best Biblical pun. We read in Matthew 16:18, “thou art Peter (Greek: Petros), and upon this rock (Greek: petra) I will build my church … ” Pope Gregory, one-time guardian of the church, punned when he stated that English slaves were Non Angli, sed angeli: “not Angles, but angels.”

The heyday of English language puns was the Elizabethan era. This type of wordplay was enjoyed by all strata of society, wordplay such as puns, repartee and double entendres being used, and wordsmiths adhering to a rigid distinction between them. For example, according to the OED a pun refers to “the use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or the use of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect; a play on words.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines double entendre as “a double meaning; a word or phrase having a double sense, esp. as used to convey an indelicate meaning.” It is usually reserved for puns with sexual connotations, such as this one: Did you hear about the sleepy bride who couldn’t stay awake for a second?

The creation of puns was facilitated by the many borrowings from the Romance languages in the 13th and 14th centuries. As well, the revolutionary changes in English pronunciation at the beginning of the 15th century created many new homonyms, the building blocks of puns. Queen Elizabeth I herself punned when she declared, “Ye be burly, my Lord of Burleigh, but ye shall make less stir in our realm than my Lord of Leicester.”

Typology of Puns

Puns may be divided into discrete categories. We have homophonic puns, which treat words that are homonyms as synonyms. Example: Why is it so wet in London? Because so many kings and queens reign there.

 Another form is the homographic pun, which uses words that are spelled the same but possess different meanings and sounds. Example: Did you hear about the optician who fell into a lens grinder and made a spectacle of himself?

These two forms can be combined, and when this is done it is usually referred to as a homonymic pun. Example: She was only a rancher’s daughter, but all the horsemen knew her.

Still another genre is the compound pun, in which a word or string of words forms another word or string of words. Example: Where do you find giant snails? On the end of giants’ fingers. The final type is the recursive pun, where the second part of the pun depends on understanding the first part. Example: A Freudian slip is where you say one thing and mean your mother.

Next month I’ll look at some of the verbal wit from the greatest punster of all time: William Shakespeare.