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A Pun, My Word

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Recently a friend sent me something that has been making the rounds on the Internet for years. It purports to be exchanges between pilots who note problems with their airplanes and the maintenance people who respond, later, below the pilot’s notation. In one case the pilot is supposed to have written “#3 engine missing,” and the mechanic has written below it: “#3 engine found on right wing after brief search.”

That’s a pun, folks—just as is the title of this wonk, come to think of it—and it got me thinking about puns, how they work, and what they can tell us. As a student of rhetoric, I take puns seriously.

I take them seriously enough to indulge myself in the fancy names (i.e., tropes) that have been given to puns and the distinctions that are sometimes made. The most general trope name, for example, is paronomasia (pa ro no MA si a) and there is rough agreement that this is the most common—and despised—form of pun, the one that plays upon identical-sounding, or at least similar-sounding, words. These are the real groaners. If someone has put poison in your cornflakes, can you call him a cereal killer? This also gives us take-offs on well-known phrases such as “Chess nuts boasting in an open foyer” and “Repaint, and thin no more!” Mondegreens* slip in here, too: cases where a word is misheard and takes on a new and silly life of its own. “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” sang generations of churchgoers, not quite knowing why they were grinning. And who was that mysterious pudgy guy, “Round John Virgin” who showed up at the manger in Bethlehem? Kids and religion are a volatile mix for mondegreens.

It has always puzzled me why puns—especially this kind—are held in such low esteem. It is almost obligatory to groan or wince. And we all know that a pun is “the lowest form of humour “ (but if, as some claim, it was the eminent Dr. Johnson who said it, I can’t seem to track it down: there is nothing snide in his dictionary entry). Puns do have their deriders, like the critic and writer John Dennis (1657-1734): “A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket.” Even worse was Victor Hugo, who described puns as the excrement of wit in flight.** But they have their defenders, too, like the essayist Charles Lamb (1775-1834) who “never knew an enemy to puns who was not an ill-natured man.” The reputation of puns seems to wax and wane. Shakespeare loved puns, especially bawdy ones, and presumably his audience did, too. Lewis Carroll had a wonderful time with puns and with loopy logic of all sorts. And sometime in between—this might be a clue—in the Neoclassical Age, they became anathema, or so we are to believe. But they have always been at the edge of our toleration, never truly exiled but never heartily welcomed, either, rather like a friend you find amusing but don’t quite trust, someone too clever by half.

The joke about the missing engine most commentators would call antanaclasis (an ta NA cla sis), where a play is made on two different meanings of a word (antanaclasis is very similar to ploce [PLO see] where a word pops up with a different meaning than it had at the start of the sentence). I find this a more sophisticated kind of punning, and in fact I think it is in better odor than paranomasia. Examples abound. When the Declaration of Independence was accomplished, Ben Franklin said mordantly, “We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” To the famous football coach Vince Lombardi (among others) is attributed “If you’re not fired with enthusiasm, you’ll be fired with enthusiasm!” And then there is the universal sad sack’s lament: “If I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”

Just to round it out, we have adnominatio (ad no mi NA ti o), which some commentators see as another word for antanaclasis. On the other hand, some commentators, as near as I can tell, would lump antanaclasis and paronomasia together. I am not as discomfited about this as others might be. Tropes have been around for 2500 years and have passed through many hands—small wonder that confusion and disagreement arise. Lastly, some consider polyptoton (po LYP to ton), the use of two words with the same root but different endings, to be a mild form of adnominatio. At any rate, here is an example of a classic chiasmus (chi AS mus: the “x-figure”: a/b/b/a) with a double dose of polyptoton: “We would become mature because maturity becomes us.” I can’t help noticing that in this case the meaning, as well as the form, of “become” has changed. So we can throw in a ploce for good measure. Whew! But it is not uncommon for tropes to gang up this way.

One trouble in a discussion of this kind is that one does not know where to draw the line. Are Spoonerisms puns? How about “Tom Swift” jokes (some certainly are [“’I’ve cracked my funny bone on this window,’ said Tom panefully”], some perhaps not (“’This lemonade needs more sugar,” said Tom sourly”]).

And on that note we had best take a break until next week.

*”Mondegreen” is itself a mondegreen. The story is that in an old ballad “laid him on the green” was misheard as “Lady Mondegreen” and the term stuck.

**Thanks here to my ever-reliable French correspondent, Xavier Kreiss.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is


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