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More Pun-ishment

Two questions linger from last week’s discussion of puns: namely, why puns are so often scorned as “the lowest form of humour” (whoever did say that, consensus seems to be that he was a Brit), and how puns are revelatory of deeper rhetorical mysteries. Well, let me and a couple of friends wrestle with those questions. I have a hunch, by the way, that the answers are connected.

It is tempting, first of all, to see puns as going in and out of fashion through the ages and fashioning (there’s another polyptoton/ploce, friends) a theory out of that. Thus the Elizabethans were thought to enjoy puns—indeed, they were intoxicated with words and wordplay of all sorts: it is almost as if they were the first to discover Language with a capital L. But as we move into the 18th century, the so-called Neoclassical Age in English letters, people start to get cranky, to deride the pun and its practitioners. I think the pun is back in style now even if there is still good-humored, almost obligatory, derision of it. My guess is that its path will be onward and upward, thanks largely to the rise of the Internet, with all its wonderful opportunities for blogging, etc. Just Google “puns” and you are in danger of not getting back home for days, if at all.

My good friend Dick Lanham entertains this historical theory. In A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, he submits that “the bad reputation of the pun pretty well coincides with the repudiation of the rhetorical paideia in favor of Newtonian science.” In other words—and let me be quick to point out that these are Shea’s words, not Lanham’s—when modern science began to come into its own in the 17th and 18th centuries the focus became the material world “out there,” and language became subservient to ideas. Because the quest to understand the Creation was highly serious, language was ordered to get highly serious, too. The punster was seen as the verbal equivalent of the kid flicking spitwads while the rest of the class is trying to study. (Lanham would say, I think, that this situation still obtains.)

Perhaps. But another good friend, another English professor emeritus, isn’t buying it. Though Joe does concede many of Lanham’s points, to him it seems just too pat, a general indictment fitting too cozily within a larger argument. There has always been a tension between puns and other wordplay on the one hand, and the more sober, strictly denotative, understanding of language on the other, he says, and shrewdly points out that “A pun is nearly always an attack, however mild, on the seriousness of the listener.” The kid with the spitwad again. Or maybe the grinning urchin with the snowball, knocking off the fop’s top hat.

And Shea (the third professor emeritus—what a wonderful old men’s game this is), who seems to be holding their coats while Dick and Joe go at it, luche libre? Well shucks, I think they’re both right to an extent. If we accept the Elizabethans’ making of language a glorious plaything, and our current attitude toward language as being strict and sober-sided, clearly something happened somewhere between then and now. Dick’s theory is a provocative one. But I have to agree with Joe that we have always had these two attitudes and they have always been circling each other warily. Some of us have the souls of poets, some of tech writers. (Sorry. That was a nasty betrayal of my bias.)

And what of these “deeper rhetorical mysteries” that I alluded to? Think about words for a moment. What are they for? What do they do? Let’s go back to the Greeks, who started all this.

Our Western view of rhetoric comes down to us from Aristotle, everybody’s darling. Well, almost everybody’s darling. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (in class I conflate them into “Socraplatle”) were more philosophers than rhetoricians. Because of that, they were in love with ideas and deeply suspicious of words, a necessary evil. Aristotle, the greatest of these if only because he stood on his predecessors’ shoulders, would have done away with words if he possibly could. But he couldn’t, of course. We still can’t manage Mr. Spock’s Vulcan mind-meld from Star Trek, which would have made Aristotle positively giddy. On the other side were the Sophists—the losers, historically*—who thought that words were just dandy, thank you. In fact, they were the first to revel in tropes, in all the things that you can do with words just for fun. Aristotle was appalled.

It comes down to this. When you read a page of prose, do you look “through” it to the ideas that are shimmering on some nether side, or are you only looking “at” it, at the words, which are really the only things we have? Is that page of prose a transparent window looking out onto the ideas or is it an opaque painting, so to speak, where the words are constructing their own reality? Who has the Truth: the philosophers or the rhetoricians?

As much as I love to beat on Socraplatle (after all, he’s been beating on the Sophists for 2500 years), I have to admit that somehow we manage to have it both ways.** We do sometimes (most of the time, actually) read a text by looking through it, sucking the “information” out of it so that we can get on with the business of the world like good grown-ups. But sometimes we get tripped up. Sometimes a pun—only one of many tropes that will do it, but charming because it is so compact and packs such a punch—will snap us out of that “through” trance if only for a second. Suddenly we are forced to look “at” the words. Lanham calls this the “toggle switch that electrifies the pun.” Suddenly, like the pilot whom the mechanic brings up short in “A Pun, My Word,” we are forced to realize that the world of ideas may, in fact, be only a world of words. And it’s good to be reminded of that, as any poet can tell you.

*One clue is that to accuse someone of “sophistry” is to imply that he is no more than a clever liar.

**Oh my, there are several more wonks a-borning here, but I promise to give it a rest for a few weeks.

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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