Plays on words and words on playwrights

Joseph Tartakovsky in Longview News-Journal, June 29, 2009

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The season of the pun is upon us. Recently one of the most-read guest columns in the New York Times was by a student at Fordham Law School named Joseph Tartakovsky. He affects to dislike puns, quoting 18th-century poet John Dryden's dictum that the pun is the "lowest and most groveling kind of wit." Nevertheless, his column manages to repeat some fine ones, including the double pun by the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whatley, "Noah's ark was made of gopher-wood, but Joan of Arc was Maid of Orleans." He neglects Groucho Marx's notorious "Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana."

The fact is, some writers love puns, and others hate them.

Edmund Burke, who was the intellectual founder of modern conservatism, loved puns, as did Oscar Wilde, who was far from conservative in his tastes, appetites and quick quips. Tartakovsky asserts Samuel Johnson was averse to punning, but there is a durable if apocryphal story that Johnson was once approached by a woman who asked him to describe the essential difference between men and women. "Madam, I cannot conceive. Can you?"

The greatest playwright of them all, William Shakespeare, who coined, stretched and turned words in all directions, had an affinity for puns both witty and profane, and made essentially the same pun in "Hamlet."

So, why, then, do puns attract and repel so effectively? Why is it the general response to a pun is often a groan, admittedly usually accompanied by a smile?

Our Fordham law student claims puns are "ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to resolve the semantic confusion."

A brilliant Nigerian-American writer who publishes under the name of Teju Cole wrote an essay recently in which he declared his surprise most Americans (outside his circle of friends, at least) dislike puns. He contrasted this sorry situation to the appreciation and esteem the Yoruba people of West Africa have for the pun. He gives several examples which would be lost in translation, but the key point is clear, that Yoruba culture appreciates proverbs, indirection and wordplay.

Cole gets to the heart of the pun when he says, "I would suggest that the labor involved in explaining a pun is inversely proportional to its brilliance. A truly great one has, within its brief compass, several layers; the power comes from grasping it all at once."

I think the delightful aspect of a pun comes from a startled insight into unexpected patterns of sound and thought. I have found I do not appreciate the written pun as much as the unscripted oral ones. While it's true any punster has his favorite homophones, and Oscar Wilde's wife bore the brunt of his practiced puns and witticisms at the breakfast table, the most effective puns arise and surprise simultaneously. An obvious pun is not funny.

Puns and wordplay in general display an appreciation for irony, and many people, including smart people, are simply not wired for irony.

The pun summons the ear, not the eye. It evokes, finds echoes, sounds out the harmonics and overtones of our mother tongue. Puns elude the empire of seriousness and allude to a republic of play.

I learned to appreciate puns, as I learned to appreciate language, from my mother. Several years before her death, my mother was waxing rhapsodic. "I'm so impressed with the caliber of my sons," she said. "Well," I replied, "my students sometimes think of me as a large bore."

She laughed until the tears came.

Frank Thomas Pool is a poet and English teacher working in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in South Longview and graduated from Longview High School. E-mail: