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.