Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In defense of puns

Puns are often considered the lowest form of humor, but anyone reading John Pollack' engaging book, The Pun Also Rises, as I have just done, would have to argue with this oversimplification.

If you have a hard time imagining an entire book of 200-plus pages about puns, imagine instead an enjoyable tour through linguistic history in which the work of scholars and experts is presented with down-to-earth, often amusing clarity.  This is not a book of puns.

Pollack shows that for thousands of years, the pun enjoyed a privileged place in Western history, art and religion: the Bible uses puns (lost to us in translation; Jesus used them to make a point, not to be funny). Cicero and the ancients valued them, Chaucer and Shakespeare had great fun with them.

So what happened? The so-called Enlightenment, the age of reason in which ambiguity, that playful awareness of multiple meanings, was frowned on and the pun was considered silly, at least in English literary circles. But in the new U.S.,  Ben Franklin and other founding fathers did not have such a bias against the venerable play on words. The very fact that the British at the time considered punning low humor made it all the more delightful for the rebellious colonists over here.

And so it goes in this enlightening overview of language and the importance of ambiguity. Without puns, how would advertisers, crossword puzzle makers, some songwriters and pundits like Maureen Dowd, greeting card creators, and headline editors get along?  They provide smiles at least, if not belly laughs.  We enjoy wordplay more than we let on.

And as to the groans that puns often seem to elicit, Pollack has sensible things to say.  We react to puns and other types of wordplay with a variety of responses since simple puns make complex demands on the brain. Pollack has done his homework in cognitive linguistics.

Every language, he says, seems to have had a place for wordplay, even the ancient Egyptians. This raises the key question: is there something about punning that is basic to language itself?

Pollack believes that intentional punning "laid the foundation for alphabetic writing as we know it." This in turn made possible the accumulation of knowledge and the modern world: wow!  It all began with a pun!

His reasoning: the human capacity to connect widely divergent ideas (two words having similar sounds, for example, but totally different meanings) enabled people over thousands of generations to construct systems of language that enabled man to move from the cave and the drum to the telegraph and the iPhone.  Sound too simple?  See what he says for yourself.

This is a wonderful book, full of humor and insight, making complex issues accessible to the general reader, and raising questions about the mind, about the human need to remain alert and nimble in an ever-changing world. That, in a word, is the function of the not-so-simple pun.

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