Capital Punnishment

July 9, 2010

It probably speaks badly of my character that my two favorite forms of humor are Tom Swifties and puns. I have gone on at some length in Mysterious Orientations about the art form of the Tom Swiftie (“I dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom, crestfallen; “You don’t bring me flowers anymore,” she said lackadaisically; “The prisoners are escaping over the wall,” he said condescendingly, etc.), but I have been remarkably silent on the fine attributes of the pun, for some unknown reason. It is high time that I rectify this omission.

Although William Shakespeare used puns relentlessly in his plays, modern writers often groan at their use, and eschew them completely (until that inevitable moment when they come up with one too good to pass up). Dave Barry opines: “Puns are little plays on words that a certain breed of person loves to spring on you and then look at you in a certain self-satisfied way to indicate that he thinks that you must think that he is by far the cleverest person on earth now that Benjamin Franklin is dead, when in fact what you are thinking is that if this person ever ends up in a lifeboat, the other passengers will hurl him overboard by the end of the first day even if they have plenty of food and water.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes was rather more succinct: “People that make puns are like wanton boys that put coppers on the railroad tracks. They amuse themselves and other children, but their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for the sake of a battered witticism.”

On the other side of the fence you will find Samuel Johnson, who famously offered: “If I were punish-ed for every pun I shed, there would not be left a puny shed of my punnish head.”

Or Oscar Levant’s telling observation: “A pun is the lowest form of humor—especially when you don’t think of it first.”

Harry Truman was known to caution guests about his wife’s home-cooked meals with the warning: “Missouri loves company.”

Over the years I have casually collected a number of groaners, gathered from my travels and the experiences of others. Here are a few favorites:

Upon hearing that we were in the mode of “playing catch-up” vis-à-vis an unusually heavy workload, my boss remarked that “playing catch-up did not cut the mustard” with him. On a drive up California’s coastal Highway 1, I ran across a sign advertising a dairy, with the notation “Our cows are outstanding in their field.” Cross-language puns are fun for the multilingual; consider this Anglo-Franco mishmash: “One man’s fish is another man’s poisson.” The Japanese say “three-nine” or make a hand gesture to that effect to express gratitude (the Japanese words for three and nine are “san” and “kyu” respectively, hence “san-kyu”, as in “san-kyu velly much”. Here’s one from Hawaii by way of Israel: “Aloha oy”, which basically translates to “Greetings. God forbid I should tell you about my bursitis, you can’t believe the pain.” Or how about the Latin for a deceased cat, “rigor morris”? These go on ad infinitum, indeed ad nauseum, but if you send me some good ones, I will be glad to publish them in an upcoming post, perhaps entitled “Quip pro quo”.