Saturday, July 11, 2009

An O-Pun letter to an Old Girlfriend

I just got an e-mail from an old girlfriend. She forwarded me an article from the New York Times about puns, the “lowest and most groveling kind of wit.”

It states in part:

“Puns are the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to resolve the semantic confusion. Most resemble mathematical formulas: clever, perhaps, but hardly occasion for knee-slapping. The worst smack of tawdriness, even indecency, which is why puns, like off-color jokes, are often followed by apologies. Odds are that a restaurant with a punning name — Snacks Fifth Avenue, General Custard’s Last Stand — hasn’t acquired its first Michelin star.”

I couldn’t resist framing a polite response, and the following exchange ensued.


That is so weird! I actually wrote in an e-mail just last night:

“The chick I was engaged to was from Upstate N.Y., and hated everything Southern. Our vegetables are too ‘squishy,’ everything is ‘too sweet.’ And, if she didn’t like it, she didn’t want me to have it, either. Same with wordplay. She doesn’t like it, so, by golly, she did her best to squash it out of me.”

Hee hee! I enjoy a good pun. I even got paid very well to come up with them. Sure, they’re not the crème de la crème of the literary world, but sometimes a Cool Quip will do just as well.

Perhaps their ephemeral nature is also part of their appeal. Let’s not make of them something they aren’t. They’re not meant to be cathedrals of great literature to be admired for their beauty through all the ages. They are sandcastles … a moment’s diversion for the tide to reclaim. They are not The Thinker, they are balloon animals. They’re not Karl Marx, but Groucho.

But, each to his own tastes, each according to his ability. God knows there are plenty of kinds of humor I don’t like. Maybe there is something else you can find to bring you as much delight.

“… my main problem with puns is … we know you are not really listening to us as friends or conversationalists, you are merely lying in wait for our words as fodder.”

I remember your saying once that certain word choices make you feel that we are not listening to you. I can appreciate that, but I disagree. In certain circumstances, it can even indicate that we are paying more attention to you. If a pun is in the right context, it can show that, not only am I listening to you, but to your words and their nuances. If I say something perfectly in context, it shouldn’t slow the conversation down at all.

Take your sentence, “... you are merely lying in wait for our words as fodder.”

Now, if I were simply to respond, “Fodder knows best,” I agree that could interrupt the flow of a conversation. But if I were to assure you that, “I certainly don’t regard everything you mutter as fodder,” I am clearly paying attention to what you said, its meaning and context. I am merely adding a subtext which you can acknowledge or dismiss as you see fit, and discourse continues uninterrupted.

How about if we remove the other person from the equation? Do you make a distinction between the spoken pun and the written? If there is no conversation to disturb, does it make a difference? If, for example, I write, “I’m eating a healthy diet of fresh fruit because I love pears in the Spring time,” or remark in April that I’m “deep in the heart of taxes,” I’m not lying in wait for your words at all.

And what of Gary Larson or Sherman and Peabody on “Rocky and Bullwinkle”? You used to like Gary Larson.

Aside from conversation or writing, many of us simply like to play. I think it is as valid a device as alliteration, rhyme or meter. Or assonance or consonance. It imposes a certain structure and shapes your choice of words accordingly.

But, I fully agree that there are times where such wordplay is inappropriate. God knows I am always biting my tongue at corporate functions. In my day, I have been both praised for my professionalism and recognized for my unorthodox facility with words.

Thanks for the dialog. This is fun! But, I wonder … is it just the pun, or is that just a catch-all? What is your stance on other types of wordplay?


And that was the last I heard from her on the subject. To think I almost married her!

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