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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PUNching The Patriarchy

Last year while in the Truman Media Network newsroom — a fellow coworker told me about a conversation that happened in her linguistics class. They were analyzing language and gender and she told me her professor declared “men tend to make more puns than women.” She then told me she thought to herself “But Rachel Fechter exists.”

Flattered as I was that for a moment I was thought to have broken some sort of arbitrary gender role that men tell more puns than women — it got me thinking. Why is this?

I feel this misconception that only men can pun has come from the “dad joke” stereotypes. Lame, awkward, but lovable dads across the country have taken to puns as a valid form of comedy. And while we must always remember to acknowledge their puns — whether that be with a groan or a chuckle, let’s also remember that this group of men does not have a monopoly on telling puns.

I have seen many examples of empowered and confident women making puns as well as puns being used to promote feminist messages.

Take The Women’s March of January 2017. Women and men alike took to the streets of Washington D.C. as well as other cities across the nation showing their disdain for Donald Trump’s blatant sexism throughout his campaign and their ardent disapproval of him becoming the president of our country.

Puns during this march became a valid way to showcase quick and clever messages about the disdain of the current political climate. Here are some examples:

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Puns on Trump’s appearance, the accusations against him for sexual assault and his stances against women’s reproductive rights were all used to creatively protest and criticize. These punny messages are much more than dad jokes. These puns are freedom of speech at work. These puns were used to bring about change to a broken system that still puts women below men in many different sectors of life.

And how could I talk about The Women’s March, puns and feminism without mentioning the pussyhat?

The Pussyhat project was started by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, two women intending to go to the Women’s March in Washington DC that was planned shortly after the announcement of Donald Trump becoming the President of The United States.

Zweinman spoke on the project saying “The idea is both a play on pussyhat, pussycat, and also references the hot mic from the Access Hollywood video. It does reference Donald Trump and those comments, but it’s also so much more. It’s reappropriating the word ‘pussy’ in a positive way. It’s a pussyhat — one word. This is a project about women supporting women.”

The movement clearly sparked more than just a couple laughs about a cat pun. It empowered women across the country and across the globe.

Puns and feminism are also nothing new to society. While this Trump era politiCAT (heh heh) climate has brought on a lot more wordplay and outspoken outrage, there have been examples of feminist puns in media for centuries — just maybe a little less overt.

I’m sorry but I’m gonna have to shake things up again, and talk about Othello for a bit. Emilia, the wife of Iago — who is the main villain in the play — has a very feminist pun towards the end of the play. Emilia is about to reveal the evil plot of her husband to everyone when her very sexist and controlling husband tells her “Hold your peace” (Act V, Scene II, Line 230) to which Emilia replies ‘Twill out, ’twill out.—I peace? No, I will speak as liberal as the north” (Act V, Scene II, Lines 231-232.)

If you are not familiar with the play I will not to spoil too much but all I will say is that throughout the play Emilia has for the most part, though begrudgingly, submitted to her husband. However, in one of the final scenes she begins to develop a moral change that prompts her to stand up to him and the evil plots he has put in motion throughout the play.

The line “I will speak as liberal as the north,” to me is a subtle but very clever, feminist, and empowering pun. “The north” Emilia is referring to is where I believe the double meaning lies. The somewhat more obvious north she is talking about is likely Heaven, where she’d be truly free from oppressors in her life on Earth.

However, I’ve interpreted a second meaning with Emilia’s line. “The north” could also very much be talking about Northern Europe. Othello takes place in Venice, Italy — where women were treated both legally and socially as objects of their fathers and husbands. However, during the time of the Elizabethan Era — women, in slight ways, in places like England were experiencing small but still significant freedoms.

Don’t get me wrong — women were in no way equal to men. They still got accused of being witches if they spoke too freely about politics, social issues, or you know talked. 

However, during this time women did have more artistic freedoms to create paintings and writings, more affluent women had access to education and some women could serve as an heiress of property — especially if their family lacked male heirs.

In addition, while women could not act in the theatre, English women were some of the first women in Europe allowed to attend the theatre alone without the accompaniment of men. Stephen Greenblatt in The Norton Shakespeare explained this further.

“In Venice, there was a special gallery for courtesans, but socially respectable women would not have been permitted to attend plays, as they could in England,” Greenblatt said. “In London, not only could middle- and upper-class women go to the theater, but they could also wear masks and mingle freely with male spectators and women of ill repute.”

Greenbelt continued to elaborate on the freedoms of women in England.

“Foreign visitors were struck by their relative freedom, as shown, for example, by the fact that respectable women could venture unchaperoned into the streets and attend the theater,” Greenblatt said. “Single women, whether widowed or unmarried, could, if they were of full age, inherit and administer land, make a will, sign a contract.”

While this could be a stretch — I feel Emilia when she says “liberal as the north” could also be referring to the more radical feminist actions taking place in London and England as a whole that had not yet moved to Venice. And while her meaning is hidden in this vague sort of diction and wordplay, her intentions of standing up to the male counterpart who has oppressed her throughout the play are apparent.

Keeping all of this in mind, it seems fair to say puns are not just limited to dorky dads. Puns can and have for some time been used by bold and radical women to make bold and radical statements.

 

 

 

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.