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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Another Day Another Dolor

"If I were punished for every pun I shed, there would not be left a puny shed of my punnish head."
--Samuel Johnson

What is it about paronomasia that people find so punishing?  Can we not play with words, as long as we know where they've been?

A recent New York Times  article (click title) explored the relative merits of this rhetorical technique.  For many people, there are none.  For others, scarcely a sentence can be uttered without resort to some form of pun.  The Solipsist is neither clever enough nor, frankly, motivated enough to try cramming puns into every nook and cranny of today's entry.  So forgive him if today's entry is somewhat bland, not especially pun-gent.  (Sorry.)

And there it is: The nearly unavoidable apology that comes after a pun.  Particularly a lame one, as the one above surely is.  As the Op-Ed writer pointed out, puns more commonly elicit groans--or at best half-smiles--rather than laughter.  And yet they are also associated with wit.  Why?

The Solipsist thinks the main problem with a pun is not so much the thing itself as its medium. His theory is that puns go over better when spoken than when written.  There's something about a written pun that seems somehow forced, too clever by half (or three quarters, or seven-eighths--oh my, YNSHC has been driven to disfraction!)  (Sorry.)  When you read a piece of writing, you assume the writer has taken time to think about words and phrasing.  A pun also implies a certain amount of thought--implies that the writer took his time, sitting in his dark parlor, candlewax dripping over a weathered skull (did people not have candlesticks in the dark ages?  And where did they get all those skulls?), until he finds le mot juste.  And le mot juste turns out to be a pretty lame play on words.

A SPOKEN pun, on the other hand, with its air of spontaneity, can often be more rewarding.  The other day, Solipsist was listing his various responsibilities at his place of employment.  When his interlocutor commented that this seemed like an unusually large number of jobs, YNSHC replied, "Yeah, I have more positions than the Kama Sutra."

OK, maybe not a knee-slapper, but not bad for the spur of the moment.  And it is this very improvisational quality that seems missing in most written puns.  So, if you're going to write a pun, you almost always have to apologize for forcing your (forced) wit on your unsuspecting readership.  Either that, or the pun itself better be extraordinary.

By the way, have you ever met a multilingual punster?  (No, this is not the set-up for a bad joke.)  Once, the Solipsist was dining with some Spaniards who lived in New York City, where they were studying German literature.  Try to keep up with this one:

How does a German atheist tell you it's raining in Barcelona?

Gottes caen.

(Explication: The above Spanish phrase roughly translates into "raindrops fall."  However, it shares a pronunciation with the German phrase, "Gott es kein," which roughly translates to "There is no God."  Get it?)

So the next time you're confronted by an irredeemable punster, take a moment to be thankful that he's only punning in one language.

Tomorrow: The American Psychosomatic Society.

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