Lateral thinking: Puns not meant for pundits!

By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 6 2021
Columns Lateral thinking: Puns not meant for pundits!

By R.S. Karunaratne

Pun is a word employed in two or more senses, or a word used in a context that suggests a second term sounding like it. In either case the two meanings must interact, usually, though not necessarily, in a humorous way. In the following example, the pun depends on different senses of the same word: “A cannon-ball took off his legs, so He laid down his arms.” Sometimes, a word sounds like another word: “During the two previous centuries musical styles went in one era and out of the other.” The word ‘pun’ was first used in the mid-17th century.

 It seems to be an abbreviation of ‘pundigrion’ as a fanciful alteration of ‘punctilio’ meaning a fine or petty point of conduct or procedure. Puns resemble irony in simultaneously using words in different senses. However, they differ in many ways. Today a pun is almost exclusively a device of humour. Mark Twain makes a joke by punning on the expression “raising chickens” in the following paragraph. 


“Even as a school boy poultry-raising was a study with me, and I may say without egotism that as early as the age of 17, I was acquainted with all the best and speediest methods of raising chickens, from raising them off a roost by burning Lucifer matches under their noses, down to lifting them off a fence on a frosty night by insinuating a warm board under their feet.” Puns also reveal an unexpected connection. A good pun not only amuses us but also points to unrealised similarities. The humourist S.J. Perelman published a collection of essays titled The road to Miltown, or under the spreading atrophy. Miltown was the brand name of a popular tranquiliser. 

He was punning on “a tree” with ‘atrophy’ echoing a famous phrase of sentimental poetry, Under the spreading chestnut tree and the participle ‘spreading’ acquires a sinister implication, far removed from the pleasant connotation it has in Longfellow’s poem The Village Blacksmith. In an age given to the wholesale swallowing of tranquilisers, atrophy may indeed be spreading. 

In the late 19th century puns were considered to be a sign of low humour. However, literary critics considered it to be a harsh judgment. A bad pun is regrettable, but a good pun is worth making. In William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice Shylock makes a pun when he says Antonio’s blood will be on his sole but not on his soul. 

Tabloid headlines 

Attempts at humour can be the downfall of the adventurous, but incautious writer. Perhaps that is why there are very few writers who are able to make their readers laugh. Although newspapers will pay the earth for them, they still remain only a handful internationally. Except for national tabloid headlines, puns are regarded with suspicion by many writers. They can be verbal banana skins. 

Newspapers and magazines use puns to attract readers. A new magazine for beginning gardeners published in the United States was called “Trowel and Error” punning on trial and error. Puns are not meant for pundits but ordinary people. In the following poem the pun is quite obvious: “Schubert had a horse named Sarah, He drove her to the big parade. And all the time the band was playing Schubert’s Sarah neighed.” Some people are in the habit of collecting puns as a hobby. Here are some puns from a collection: A monastery in financial trouble decided to go into the fish-and-chips business. One night, a customer tapped on the door and a monk answered. “Are you the fish friar?” The customer asked. “No,” the robed figure replied, “I’m the chip monk.” 

Carp-to-carp walleting 

Two men were fishing from a dock when one of them accidentally dropped his wallet into the river. They peeped into the river and watched as a carp swam by and scooped the wallet up in its mouth. Suddenly another carp appeared and snatched the wallet away. 

The two fishermen looked at each other in disbelief. “Joe,” said one, “that’s the first time I’ve ever seen carp-to-carp walleting.” It is a common sight to see students falling asleep when the teacher is busy teaching. To awaken a freshman sleeping in his class, the English professor threw a book at him. “What hit me?” asked the startled freshman. “That,” replied the professor, “was a flying Chaucer.” 

Two weevils started life together. One was an immediate success; the other a complete failure. Naturally, the latter became known as the lesser of two weevils. The celebrated Indian author Kushwant Singh included many puns in his joke books. The biggest joke is that in a country known to have no sense of humour, joke books have become national bestsellers. 

He confessed that he had written mostly on serious subjects such as history, religion, and politics. However, all that has faded into the background and he came to be known as a compiler of jokes, and worse, a joker! The only reward he had earned for being a spinner of jokes is that Allan Sealy, in his book Laughing Matters – the tradition of Indian humour has done him the honour of including him with Birbal, Tenali Raman and Gopal Bhore. All of them are wellknown humourists. 

Labour problems 

Some of his jokes are loaded with puns. He recalls how an Indian and Cuban labour Ministers were in the midst of a meeting. The Cuban Labour Minister said, “Labour problems in our country produce hundreds of people suffering from tension.”

 The Indian Labour Minister smiled and said, “That’s nothing. Labour problems in our country produce 50,000 babies every day.” At school we were taught that we would never find any mistakes in an editorial. However, being human, editors still make mistakes. One day an overenthusiastic editor carried a note above his editorial: “Don’t be surprised if you find any mistakes in this editorial. We print something for everyone.

 And some people are always looking for mistakes.” An Indian political leader was slamming the Congress Party. Addressing a crowded university meeting, he thundered, “The Congress Party members are all waters of the first rogue.” The audience burst into laughter over his lapse of tongue. He realised that he had made a mistake. Then he joined the palms of his hands to ask for pardon.

 “I am very sorry, it is a tongue of slip.” This time the laughter was louder than before. He was genuinely contrite and said, “You must pardon me. I am always limiting the cross.” Puns, used judiciously, will break the monotony of life. They come handy for British and US tabloid headlines such as the following: ‘Breath of fresh heir Boy, what a son rise! The joy of six’ Keep on collecting puns and enjoy life! [email protected]

By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 6 2021

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