Praising puns
S. Raghunath

A good pun may be admitted among the small excellencies of a lively conversation.

— James Russell

When common people like puns and make them, then a nation is on a high level of civilisation.

— G. C. Lichtenberg

THERE is something to be said both for and against puns. They upset the dignity of speech, flout the rules of civilised conversation and cut the ground of logic from under us. On the other hand, to a great practitioner and artificer of words, a pun is a language on vacation. It exposes the
vulnerability of language to the onslaught by irreverence.

A great American playwright once made one of the greatest word plays of all time with his upsetting remark that "what is one man’s Mede is another man’s Persian". One also recalls his anguished cry at the poker table. ‘‘I’m being trey-deuced! ’’

Impromptu puns, although generally not the finest, often provide the purest pleasure. They live for a split second and then vanish, leaving the audience to work it out among themselves.

Perhaps the earliest punster of note is Homer. In the ninth edition of Homer’s Odyssey, to fool the giant Polyfemus, the wily Ulysseus has given his name as ‘‘Outis’’ (Greek for ‘‘Nobody’’) and when later Ulysseus attacks Polefemus in the caves, the latter calls out to his fellow Cyclopes — ‘‘Nobody is attacking me! ’’ His friends take him literally at his word, of course, and do not go to his assistance.

In recent times, James Joyce’s Ulysseus, constructed on the lines of Homer’s Odyssey, is crammed with puns and word plays. In Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, scholars have discovered more than 50,000 puns and word plays in 20 different languages.

Puns improved during the Middle Ages and flourished during Renaissance and with the development of the vernacular language and the advent of Shakespeare and Rableais, they began to go places.

With the 19th century and the appearance of great connoisseurs like Sydney Smith and Lamb, puns began to evolve as a distinct genre of the language. Twentieth-century American humourists and wordsmiths like Ogden Nash, Lardner, George Kaufman, Peter de Vries, Walter Winchell and S. J. Perelman have made notable contributions to the work of puns.

The simplest pun is based upon the reuse of a word with a slight shift in meaning. Perelman’s ‘‘Doctor, I’ve got Bright’s disease and he has got mine’’ is an excellent example. It may also turn on an almost unnoticeable alteration in the meaning of the simplest word like Saki’s ‘‘She was a good cook as cooks go and as good cooks go, she went.’’

The well-known wisecracker‘‘A self-made man adores his maker’’ is an example of a minimum shift pun. A pun involving not the slightest verbal distortion may have great richness, like Sydney Smith’s famous remark. Observing two women bawling at each other across a backyard, he noted that they would never be able to agree because they were arguing from different premises.

More complicated than the identical word pun is the homonym pun. Here, the words match in sound, but not in meaning.

A homonym pun is the basic pun. Shakespeare used it
extensively in his plays. It
may be quite simple like Alexander Woolcott’s title for his review of theatrical plays —Enchanted Aisles.

Christopher Morkey and William Rose Benet were looking through the window of a shop displaying small wigs on a stand. ‘‘They’re alike as toupees’’ observed Mr Morley.

A homonym pun, whether congruent or nearly so can be quite entertaining. A gentleman crossing the English river of Mersey and observing its muddy condition remarked —‘‘Evidently, the quality of Mersey is not strained.’’

Double puns, whether homonymous or not, are marked by structural complications. Here is a well-constructed contemporary homonymous double pun, the handiwork of Sterling North. ‘‘A bustle is like a historical romance. Both are fiction based upon stern reality.’’ Another excellent example is Franklin P. Adams’ ‘‘Take care of your peonies and your dahlias will take care of themselves.’’

Even harder to forget is Adams’ comment on an unhappy incident during the Spanish Civil War. It appears that a group of Basques fleeing before the enemy were hemmed into a narrow mountain pass and were annihilated. Which, Adams noted sadly, "is what comes by putting all Basques in one exit."

John Gunther, the illustrious author of the ‘‘Inside’’books, was once a participant in a quiz show and was asked to identify the potentate of a certain Middle Eastern country, and he confidently provided the answer. "Are you Shah?" the quiz master asked facetiously. ‘‘Sultanly," replied Gunther.

Meld puns are especially characteristic of our times and they can be quite ingenious like Louis Untermeyer’s description of composers, who criticised Debussy yet imitated him. ‘‘Debussybodies," he called them.

Perhaps the greatest pun of all time is attributed to Joseph P Choate, a noted American criminal trial lawyer of yesteryear. According to one version, he was defending a case in the courthouse in Westchester country, a Commuter’s suburb not from New York City. The prosecutor, driven to distraction by his silken un-perturbability, finally rose and addressed the jurors. ‘‘Gentlemen, I hope you won’t be influenced in your decision by my opponent’s Chesterfieldian urbanity’’ and Choate, in his turn, rose and addressed the jurors. ‘‘Gentlemen, I, too, hope that you won’t be influenced either by my opponent’s Westchesterfieldian suburbanity.’’