Have you heard this one? “A group of chess enthusiasts checked into a hotel and were standing in the lobby discussing their recent tournament victories. After an hour, the manager asked them to disperse. ‘But why?’ they asked. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘I can’t stand chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.’ ”
In the United States today, we are primed to respond to puns by groaning. We describe them as “bad,” or, if we’re generous, as “so bad, they’re actually good.” I personally think the example above is just plain good – hilarious and very clever. Why, then, as John Pollack writes in “The Pun Also Rises,” do we consider puns “the lowest form of humor?”
Puns exploit the different possible meanings of a particular word or words that sound similar. They are a subset of a time-honored rhetorical technique, paronomasia, which employs words that resemble each other sometimes for humorous, but more often for serious, effect. The Bible is full of paronomasia. Moses’ name plays on the idea of him being “drawn out” of the river by Pharaoh’s daughter (mosheh, in Hebrew) and being the person who “draws out” (mashah) Israel from bondage in Egypt. Jesus tells his apostle, “you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my Church.” These are puns with a purpose; they encourage readers or listeners to engage more deeply with the text.
The Renaissance was the golden age of punning. Shakespeare’s poems and plays contain more than 3,000, from the serious – “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew/ adieu” – to the very bawdy.
In the 18th century, though, puns fell from grace. Their multiple meanings were no longer seen as encouraging reflection; rather they were considered a stumbling block to the smooth flow of information. Samuel Johnson hated Shakespeare’s “quibbles,” as he called them, and complained that they continually “checked and blasted” the emotional effect of the plays. Today, puns are “mere” wordplay, possibly funny but never profound.
Because they play with finite sets of word meanings, puns are the one form of joke that computers are consistently able to produce. Some of them are pretty good: “What do you call a beloved mammal? A dear deer.” Some of them aren’t: “What kind of idea melts? A thaw-t.” Certain programs can also evaluate puns, declaring which are funniest.
Given that puns are the kind of humor that computers “understand,” perhaps we should rethink our attitude toward them. When the singularity occurs, our robot overlords might keep the punniest among us around.