A Run For Your Punny

Disclaimer: I’m a nerd.

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Puns are nothing new to society, and certainly have a long, whimsical history of spicing up sentences and even entire languages.

According to John Pollock, author of the book “The Pun Also Rises” and winner of the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship in 1995, the root of the word “pun” itself come from a language rich in puns — Sanskrit. Pollock says this language, dating back to seventh century B.C.E., was loaded with puns. One of the words in Sanskrit, “Pundit,” is a person who unpacks ambiguity. This is thought to potentially be the root for the word “pun.”

To add to this fascination — I remember sitting in a rigorous art history class my freshman year, listening to my professor talk about ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. She introduced the concept of a “rebus.

Just call be Rebus Mcentire.

I learned a rebus is a device that uses images to represent words or parts of words. These were popular in many ancient, picture bases languages like Egyptian hieroglyphs and Cuneiform as well as Japanese characters and later used as heraldic expression in the middle ages.

A rebus was essentially the first visual pun to ever enter language. The Japanese during the Edo Period used them as puzzles while ancient Egyptians used them for basic communication as well as the interpretation of dreams.

The best modern day example of a rebus I can give is one often used on game shows, especially those like Emogenius — a new game that came onto the Game Show Network scene, much to the chagrin of many older generations.

In addition to entire languages having heavily pun-based influences, puns have appeared in many historical texts, messages, and even political statements.

In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey — that I oh-so-begrudgingly struggled through reading my freshman year on high school, the epic hero of the story, Odysseus, makes an iconic pun in the text.

In a scene of this story, Odysseus encounters a cyclops who wants to eat him. He tells the cyclops his name is “Outis,” which is Greek for “Nobody,” then proceeds to stab him in the eye. The cyclops shouts “Outis (a.k.a. nobody) is hurting me,” and his fellow cyclops friends figure he’s just going insane and decide to pray to the gods for his well being instead.

I have to admit, while this book turned my brain to mush, this is a level of pun game I can only hope to someday achieve.

Additionally, Founding Father Ben Franklin is quoted saying one of the most ionic puns of all time:

“We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

He used a pun to make a not so humorous but nonetheless important point about the necessity of unification during the Revolutionary War.

As I talked about in a previous blog the connections between puns and politics, there have been many historical US presidential elections that employed the usage of puns as well.

Franklin Pierce, for example, in the election of 1852 came up with a punny slogan for running for president. James K. Polk, who had earlier had a successful presidency in the eyes of the people was where Pierce drew his inspiration to win the election against Winfield Scott. The slogan Piece cleverly used, that no doubt helped him secure the presidency was “We Polked You in ’44, We Shall Pierce You in ‘52.”

Another not as lucky presidential candidate, Alf Landon, went up against Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and also used puns to win over the public. Some of his slogans included “Land-On Washington,” and “Let’s Make It a Landon-Slide.” Pretty clever, but I guess not clever enough. Poor Alf only got 8 electoral votes.

The Victorians had their own puns they also liked to whip out every now in then when they took a break from all the opioids and cocaine. My favorite is a math pun that goes like this: “Why should the number 288 never be mentioned in company? Because it is two gross.”

Confused? Yeah, so was I. A “gross” is apparently a unit of 144. And now that I understand the pun, I’ve very impressed.

Authors in literature have also never been ones to shy away from puns. Geoffrey Chaucer is believed to have LITtered his Canterbury Tales with puns and was possibly the first to write a pun in the English language. Speaking of English puns, well, you already know my love for Shakespeare, so I’ll shakeSPARE you the details on that one. Even Mark Twain is believed to have said “Denial, ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

Puns. What a rich history. What a promising future. What a wonderful present. And yes, I mean an actual present. Please give all your friends pun shirts for upcoming gift giving holidays.

 

 

 

 

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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.