Disclaimer: I’m a nerd.
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.