The Pun Also Rises

You know those books you had to read for your English classes in high school and crap out a sub par essay or two about? Those books you probably hear and resent because they felt archaic, boring, and hard to relate to? Those books that aren’t just books but are “literature”? Well — I’m sorry to say but we’re going to be talking about them today because many of them are LITtered with puns.

Puns and wordplay have existed in the books we read long before internet memes took them by storm. And the punny thing about their usage is that they haven’t always been used in humorous ways. Authors have cleverly employed puns in their writing a lot of times to bring attention to something or to make social commentary on something.

We see the usage of a pun for a less humorous but more for a attention-grabbing, pathos inducing, implicit commentary about a character in the story “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway.

In the short story we have our main female protagonist named Jig and her unnamed boyfriend arguing about whether or not she should get an abortion. Throughout the story Jig goes from being passive and non-confrontational to standing up to her boyfriend by the end of the story and — while made unclear whether or not she aborts her baby — the reader feels a sense of closure as it is implied that she has arrived at her own decision about what she wants to do in spite of her boyfriend’s pressures.

Something I could never get over in this story was that the name of the main character was “Jig.” So many implications come with this name, and not necessarily humorous ones. A jig if often another word for a dance which seems fitting for this character because for most of the story she dances around the topic of her unplanned pregnancy and doesn’t want to have the discussion with her boyfriend who is strongly pushing her to get an abortion. In addition, “jig” has another even more deeply rooted meaning when you consider the phrase “the jig is up.” This is also fitting for the main protagonist because at the end of the story she finally does confront the issue and makes it clear to her boyfriend that the jig really is up and that she is going to do what she wishes with her unborn child and he’s just going to have to deal with it. A surprisingly feminist character carefully crafted within Hemingway’s work — Jig’s true power and the nature of her character is revealed through the connotative puns of her name.

And what kind of puns in literature blog post would this be if I didn’t talk about the pun king himself — William Shakespeare? He often PLAYed with words in his theatrical works in ways like Hemingway did — to bring attention to something or add social commentary to a topic. Conversely, Shakespeare is unafraid of reminding us it’s okay to not take life so seriously and laugh at an Elizabethan fart pun.

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Time to SHAKE things up.

The bardtender’s plays are crawling in puns. His comedies have puns to add the the humorous, often sexual nature of his work and his dramas often employ puns to break the serious tension and serve as comedic relief after something awful has either just happened or is implied to happen by the end of the play.

If you don’t believe me when I say the man we’ve all been forced to study and taught to honor and put on a pedestal for his innovative playwriting did in fact pack his work with amazingly witty and likely groan inducing puns — I give you just a few of many, many, MANY examples:

Hamlet 

This drama follows the internal struggle of Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, as he grapples with how to avenge his father’s death after discovering his uncle Claudius murdered his father in order to marry his mother and become King of Denmark.

Claudius at the start of the play refers to Hamlet as both his son and his cousin — failing to acknowledge the uncomfortable ickiness of this. Hamlet then remarks with a witty comeback “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (Act I, Scene II.)

This famous line is a pun on the word “kind” which at the time could sometimes be used as a shortened version of kindred. Hamlet is basically using some angsty wordplay to throw shade at his uncle/stepdad saying to himself as an aside that they may be even closer now as family but he still has plenty of hostility toward him.

Twelfth Night 

This comedy has plenty of sexual puns as well as witty, and often defiant puns administered by Feste the clown. Feste, who is supposed to be a low status fool of the play, is often the one to give advice and make some rigid social commentary about class systems and power.

My favorite example of this is when Feste has been absent from doing his work and another member of the help, Maria, says Lady Olivia who they both work for will have him hung for leaving. Feste in a very mic-droppable way states “Let her hang me: he that is well hanged in this world needs to fear no colours” (Act I, Scene V.)  

Despite the word looking like the British spelling of colors it actually at this time meant collars. At this time collard shirts were a sign of wealth and power. Feste essentially tells Maria “bring it,” stating he is unafraid of both the literal collar of a rope hanging around his neck or the rich and powerful people of society who are trying to keep him in line and oppress him with their high status collared shirts.

Othello 

Shakespeare sadly did not shy away from racial puns in his plays, often at the expense of characters of color. In this play the protagonist of the play, Othello, is clearly marked as an “other” of society because he is a Moor, which at the time was a term used to describe both people of Arab or African descent. While it’s unclear what race Othello actually is, the play makes it abundantly clear he is not white and many of the characters make it a point to mention it in rather unsavory ways, exposing the darker and racist side of punning at this time.

In Shakespeare’s time calling people “his worship” was a way to show respect to someone of high status. Iago, the main villain of the play refers to Othello as “his Moorship” as a play on the phrase, making a point to say — even though Othello is a well respected war hero and high in the social ranks, he still refuses to respect him because of the color of his skin.

Conclusion 

I could go on with more examples but I understand most people are not nerds who care about these things as much as I do. But there are puns in literally every Shakespeare play: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing — you name it.

Puns are hidden deep in the crevices of every piece of literature we read and when discovered and pondered — or PUNdered — can make profound comments on certain social norms, hegemonies, and characters while of course, giving us a good chuckle.

 

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Punning For An Election

A common misconception is that puns and wordplay can only be used for humor, jokes, and informal settings. This is far from the case. Puns have been a useful — and in my opinion, effective — rhetorical strategy for decades, in particular, in political campaigning.

Take this past 2016 Presidential Election cycle for example. It was riddled with puns. I was a huge Bernie Sanders fan both for his altruistic efforts to help marginalized and neglected people in our society live decent lives but also, because I am pun trash, his campaigning slogans.

“Feel The Bern” was a genius slogan that I full-heartedly endorsed and supported. I had buttons. I had signs. I had t-shirts. I Bernt myself to a crisp.

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Feeling The Bern 

The puns in Bernie’s campaign, as well as his popularity that ensued in late 2015 and early 2016, grew even further with a newer, fresher pun added to his branding and his campaign as a carefree, spirited, social justice warrior. This was the bird that landed on Bernie’s podium while he was addressing the public at a rally.

On March 24, 2016 Bernie Sanders spoke in Portland, Oregon to a group of young supporters stating his plans to give every one of them the opportunity to go to college when a bird began flying around the venue of the rally. The audience began laughing and Bernie chuckled, when all of the sudden the bird landed on Bernie’s podium. The audience erupted with cheers and Bernie stopped mid sentence to look at the bird then stated “I think there may be some symbolism here.”

Oh Bernie, you had no idea.

Within hours a hashtag on Twitter #birdiesanders began to spread — or should I say Bern — like wildfire. From there the internet went insane. “Birdie Sanders” became an unintentionally branded pun in no time. There was buttons, shirts, graphics, photos, memes, social media posts, and videos in support of the “Birdie Sanders” brand plastered across the world wide web. Bernie’s campaign became even more pun-filled and the puns, while also a major source of entertainment also furthered Bernie’s campaign. The bird landing on Bernie’s podium symbolically for many represented Bernie’s approachability and perpetuated the ideals within Bernie’s rhetoric of helping those oppressed or ignored under society’s hegemony.

Bernie wasn’t the only one who used puns in that election cycle. They were everywhere.

Hillary Clinton deep into her election campaign began circulating “Love Trumps Hate” stickers, shirts, and other paraphernalia. She also went with an ironic, almost satirical, tangible “woman card” that people could purchase and carry around in support of her campaign. This was in response to her main adversary and now President — Donald Trump — accusing her of playing a metaphorical “woman card” in order to garner sympathy and empathy to get votes.

Democrats were also not the only ones to use puns in their campaigns.

Ted Cruz had a brief flirtation with puns with his “TrustTed” slogan making a pun off of the word trust and trying to create a connotative correlation between his name and the word “trust.”

Puns have also not been exclusive to national elections.

One of my favorite politicians who is a Missouri State Representative in my local voting district — Deb Lavender — also uses a pun in her branding. Some might say this doesn’t “count” as a pun but I think her branding is a wonderfully clever visual pun. All of Deb Lavender’s yard signs that she gives out during local election cycles are purple. Deb also can be found at political rallies and events often times wearing purple. While this is a subtle kind of pun, playing on the fact that her last name is a shade of purple, I think it’s still worth noting, and for me, totally worth relishing in and enjoying.

The usage of all of these puns in election campaigning have had common effects and impacts in that they have made the candidates come across as more relatable, approachable, and authentic. A pun has a way of breaking down walls put up between prominent politicians and the masses by taking a characteristic about a particular candidate, whether that be their name, something about their personality, or an aspect of their appearance and teasing it out into a short, witty, pun-induced brand.

Happiness Is A Warm Pun

My favorite part about telling a pun is not the act of coming up with and saying the pun itself, though that does give me much joy. My favorite part is the reactions I get from others after the pun is said. There are five reactions, archetypes if you will, that people fall under, no, fall punder, when they hear a pun.

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Halloween circa 2014

First, there are The Cheerleaders. These are the people who will always laugh at your puns, generally people you don’t know very well who haven’t been beaten down by your caustic punning away. They will encourage you to keep telling puns and often egg on your punning by sharing punny gifs and memes on your social media pages. These are the ones who will often give you pun paraphernalia as gifts for holidays and birthdays.The greatest cheerleader I ever had was my friend’s boyfriend. He met me once and insisted on exchanging phone numbers with me for the sole purpose that I text him puns. That was a hilarious, beautiful, slightly awkward and jarring task that I wholeheartedly took on.

Next, there is the Awkward Silence Squad. These are the people you encounter who will not understand your pun or find it to be too much of a stretch to make sense or even be called a pun. They may offer up a forced half laugh out of pity, but don’t be fooled; they were not drinking the pun Koolaid. It’s not that they dislike puns in general or dislike you. They simply did not get your pun. Maybe you made a King Henry VIII pun that you thought was Anne Boleyn but ended up being Anne BoleOUT. Maybe showing up to a pro Second Amendment rally wearing a bear suit and exercising your right to bear arms was seen by some as a little extra. Maybe your pun about spices was poorly thymed. Whatever the issue, your pun went unappreciated.

Then we come to The ComPUNtition. These are the people who also like to tell puns just like you. These people can be both blessings and curses in disguise. These pun enthusiasts can be blessings because you can pun back and forth with them for hours, volleying your best word play back and forth. They will always be there to validate and solidify your love for puns. However, this can backfire. When you tell puns as often as I do, it almost becomes your identity. You become the pun dealer who everyone comes to with all their pun pick me up’s. When someone else starts telling puns too it can make you feel like your puns are no longer number ones. I have felt this feeling before. I’ve had those moments when everyone is praising the other punster in the room and I’ve felt like chopped liver. While spreading the pun love and encouraging others to pun is always something I am for, once in a while I will feel a sense of envy for those who jumped on the pun first or whose puns garnered more laughs than mine. It’s petty, I know. But it can be discouraging feeling like no one cares about or wants to listen to your puns, that you are the pun has-been, or that someone else has word plays much wittier than yours. Of course the best cure to this setback is of course, to keep telling more puns.

Next comes the Fake News Gang. I say this in jest to make fun of our current Commander Cheeto but also because these people are often liars. They will groan and boo at your puns. They will tell you that pun you just made was terrible. But you know they secretly don’t mean it. They often cannot conceal the small and slight grin that spreads on their face. These may be my favorite group of people. Knowing my puns can potentially reach even the bitterest of curmudgeons and get a positive reaction out of them, no matter how much they might deny it, gives me purpose. It feels good to know I have possibly brightened the day of someone who probably hasn’t laughed in a while and is taking life a little to seriously.

 

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Meet my friend Nick, your typical member of the Fake News Gang. This was him reacting to a pun I told last spring. Don’t be fooled by his troubled exterior. He was pretty placid.

The last group are the Haterade Drinkers. These people are not to be confused with the Fake News Gang. These folks are the ones who will not only groan at your puns but will also try to silence them. They will tell you that punny headline you want to run on in the newspaper is not professional enough. They will tell you your pun t-shirts are childish. They will tell you that puns are the lowest form of comedy. Unlike the Fake News Gang, who just refuse to admit they enjoyed your pun but actually thought it was clever, this group will go to the end of the earth to get you to stop punning. But for all you pun enthusiasts out there combating a Haterade Drinker, tell them to switch to a new beverage, maybe some PUNch. Puns are a valid, creative, and artistic form of humor and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The Pun Will Come Out Tomorrow

A typical day includes me walking around Truman’s campus, my bespectacled eyes with darkened circles underneath, my lanky body flowing like spaghetti noodles from class to class, adorned in a pun t-shirt, jeans, a pair of dusty and faded Converse, and a headband with a floral aesthetic I have attempted to make match my shirt and shoes. At college I’m often sleep deprived. I’m often stressed. I’m often busy. My mind is often in a thousand different places. But I’m also usually happily trudging through life anyway, because that’s what I do. As my dad has said before, I am “Fechter tough,” which basically means I keep smiling, I keep laughing, I keep punning, even when I’m in my darkest of hours. That’s all I can do sometimes.

For many of those who know me, puns come to mind as a defining characteristic of mine. I always mange to sprinkle them into everyday conversation, much to the chagrin of those friends and family members constantly around me.

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When you’re already booked for most of the semester! 

A typical meal may consist of me picking up a slice of pizza and asking “who wants a pizza me?” A typical trip back home usually includes me telling my cats how much I “pawsitively love them.” A typical day consists of someone complaining that they are tired and me saying,“Hi tired, I’m Rachel!”

The puns that come out of my mouth are constant and omnipresent. But puns have not always been such a big part of my life though.

My love for puns started in high school.

High school was when I silently and secretively battled my worst enemy; myself. During my sophomore year I began to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety that I often suppressed, denied, and ignored. I told myself this didn’t happen to happy people. I told myself I was happy.

These feelings went on for almost two years before I told anyone. My friends at school had no idea this was happening. My family didn’t know until much later. The feelings I had would come and go. Creep in at odd times. Suffocate my mind for hours then tease me with liberation.

I’d hold in these feelings all day at school and at home then late at night when I knew everyone was asleep, let tears silently trickle out of my eyes onto my pillow. I’d often turn to the internet to take my mind off these terrible thoughts on these terrible nights. Somewhere along the road I found puns, maybe in an article I read, or on a Facebook post, or carefully crafted inside a meme.

Though the rest of high school these negative thoughts plagued my mind, but I smiled through the pain and kept telling puns to myself and others. Making myself and other people laugh didn’t heal the problems I was dealing with, but they made the dark moments a little bit lighter, at least for a moment or two.

At my worst, when the anxiety and depression began to pick up and I had to ask my mom for help, I was still punning away.

While pulling my third all nighter in a row on a school night, battling my anxiety induced insomnia, I was able to take my mind off of how tired and panicked I felt the next day by make my friend Katie laugh with a pun. I said “Oh, whale” encouraging her to brush off a bad situation and holding up a picture of a whale. To this day, the whale pun is favorite of hers. You’re whalecome, Katie.

When some girls in my neighborhood decided to follow me, harass me, and make fun of the clothes I was wearing, I decided to take to my angsty poetry google drive folder and wrote something along the lines of “even though my Goodwill t-shirt was baggy and blue, I’m more sad and blue for you.”

When I wasn’t eating because food felt like a pointless chore in the mess of all my horrible thoughts, the next day I made a pun in the PE class I was forced to take while running laps during the dreaded Pacer Test thinking “exercise more like what-the-heck-cercise” chuckling to myself.

One day while I was at home sick because the new antidepressant I was taking made me feel like throwing up, I watched Shrek while bed ridden and typed “It’s not ogre until its ogre,” into my Twitter drafts, intending to post it later for all my friends to see.

After I was driving home from school one day in rush hour traffic and pondered how easy it would be to swerve into the oncoming lane, I came home and thought about how Manchester Road, sometimes harder to sift through than the Wal-Mart five dollar DVD bin, “drives me crazy” and relaxed my mouth into a small smile before the terrible thoughts of hating myself and hating life came back.

But I never swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic. I kept driving all the way home. I kept going. I kept punning.

During my senior year of high school I was getting help. I was taking anti-depressants that didn’t make me feel sick. I was seeing a counselor. I was talking to my mom more when I felt down. I  had a greater appreciation for the little moments, like the times at school where my friends and I sat in a circle on the dirty tile floor during lunch and talked about our days. I was sleeping better and sometimes not even having to take Melatonin to knock myself out for the night. I was eating like a human being again. The constant tension in my muscles occasionally relaxed. I felt okay.

Four years later, I’m still telling puns all the time. When my fellow Truman Media Network coworkers and I are sleep deprived and stressed on a Tuesday night at 4 a.m. putting the newspaper out for press, I’m usually the one to make a snarky comment about how we have a lot of “issues.” When a friend gets out of a tough exam I ask if they’re feeling “testy” to make them smile. In a tense argument between friends when drama ensues I’ll be the one to awkwardly interject “Why is everyone so salty?” pointing to the nearest spice rack to lighten the mood.

Now when the negative thoughts creep into my head, telling me I’m a worthless waste of space, I remind myself how many smiles I’ve put on people’s faces, strangers and loved ones alike, by telling, writing, and wearing puns. I think about this and I feel a little more alive, a little more grateful, a little more hopeful, and a little more happy. If I’m able to take something as simple as a play on words and brighten someone’s day with it, maybe someone who is plagued by the same terrible thoughts and feelings that captivated me for so long, I will keep punning.