AN Englishman accidently poured his dessert of strawberries into the bowl that contained the last of his Caesar salad. He liked the resulting combination so much that from then on he always berried his last romaines.
Ah, the pun (and punster), usually written off as verbal dross in an age of visual dazzle, is in the midst of a mild revival in the United States. "You see puns used more and more these days in newspaper headlines, in magazines and advertising," says Bob Aitchison, an editor of the quarterly American Pun Review and co-founder of the nonprofit Pun American Club based in Deerfield, Ill. He cites dozens of recent examples in publications from Time magazine to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"We had to double the size of our postal box last year," says John Crosbie of Toronto, Canada, the chairman of the bored of The International Save the Pun Foundation. He says members in the nonprofit organization now number in the "thousands," and come from "every socioeconomic level." He is the author of Crosbie's Dictionary of Puns.
In ancient Rome when workers in a popular deli were told they could eat anything they wanted during lunch hour - anything, that is, except the expensive smoked salmon - they created the world's first anti-lox breaks.
Each year on April 1, the International Save the Pun Foundation has a dinner in Chicago to name Punster of the Year and trade fast puns. More than 200 punsters have made reservations so far for this year. "Each year I go as Pun-Up Girl of the Year," says Joyce Heitler, the organizer of the event, "and ask people if they want to see a comic strip."
Mr. Crosbie, a retired advertising executive, says, "People who like word play are more playful and mentally agile [than nonpunsters]. We started the Save the Pun Foundation initially to encourage youngsters to have fun with words. Because TV seems to turn kids away from reading, we wanted to lure them back."
Often people give gift memberships to the foundation ($20 a year) in the name of a school or a teacher. "Sometimes we get puns from entire classrooms," says Crosbie, who has published a monthly newsletter, The Pundit, for 12 years.
But the two organizations look mainly to shameless adults to keep the flows punning.
A band of knights stopped to freshen up in the Tobermoray area in Scotland. A boy and his father watched them jump in the lake for a swim. When the knights emerged from the water, the boy said, "Look father, they are now 12 feet tall." The father replied, "Aye, lad. It is well-known that the knights get longer in Loch Tober."
"I think interest in punning is growing because the more puns you hear or read, the more you like them," says Mr. Aitchison. "One of our members is a stress counselor, and she says creating puns is relaxing; if you pun successfully, you feel better."
Punning's pervasive pinnacle was reached during Shakespeare's day. Word-play and new words were encouraged then. The Bard scattered 1,032 puns throughout his plays.
At the monthly meeting of the Pun American Club, pun-offs are popular. The members break up into teams of two for a total of six pairs. Each pair has five seconds to create a pun, for instance, about President Clinton. The second team responds; then back and forth until the puns run dry.
What is the essence of a good pun?
"It has to be clever and witty," says Aitchison, "and the best ones are spontaneous. It has to be something that can be laughed over with someone, not against someone."
Heitler, who is a teacher by profession, says punsters are people "who like to humiliate their families." The people that come to the annual dinner, she says, "tell me they just can't wait to come and be with hundreds of people who don't turn away."