Culture Vulture

Pun control is a laughing matter

Many find wordplay groan-inducing, but a world without puns would be a humdrum one

I was in a taxi the other day when the radio started playing.

"Here's a riddle for you listeners out there. What animal in the world can't grow any taller?" The deejay asked in Mandarin.

Listeners rang in with their guesses: A fish? A snake? An ant?

No, no and no, the deejay said.

"The answer is a tortoise," she announced triumphantly, "because gui ling gao". ("Gui ling gao", a kind of medicinal black jelly, sounds like what would be "tortoise zero height" in English.)

There was a pause. Then the driver and I, who had been sitting in companionable silence, let out a collective groan.

Gui ling gao, the driver echoed in disbelief, shaking his head at how humour had reached a new low. (Note: This was before the onslaught of advertisements telling people to have a "Wang-derful" Year of the Dog. "Wang" is the Chinese word for prosperity as well as the sound a dog makes.)

The awful pun is the verbal equivalent of scrubbing out the face from a multi-million-dollar portrait of Whistler's Mother and scribbling a smiley face in its place with a marker pen. We laugh - and if we do, we do so with a mixture of pity and mortification - at Mr Bean, not with him.

But love them or hate them, there are many of us who find puns irresistible.

Ever since I transferred to the Life section of this newspaper, more colleagues than I can remember - and not just that one male reporter notorious for riddling his speech with puns - have asked me: "How's life at Life?"

I can think of many things more outrageous than the pun - the double-headed monsters of corporate-speak - "co-create" and "co-locate", to name a few.

The well-executed pun is clever, playful and sometimes draws attention to how peculiarly fitting it is. You can almost hear the homophones snap together like magnets, click-click, clack-clack.

Still, the pun has been decried as the lowest form of humour.

Pundits (sorry) - and anyone who dislikes Ryan Higa's YouTube videos - will say that this is because puns are "cheap", "easy" and often seem to be the antithesis of subtlety and what is often held up as "good" taste.

To make things worse, neurologists think that people who make too many puns might suffer from a form of brain damage that results in a pathological condition known as Witzelsucht (addiction to wisecracking).

Ultimately, the lowly status of the pun boils down to how it seems entwined with the idea of self-control (or a lack of it, rather).

Why else would we say "no pun intended" after the happy accident of a double entendre? Why this need to stamp our acknowledgement onto something unless we are afraid of it seeming as though our words have slipped out of control?

Writers, flirting with sensitive topics while taking refuge in wordplay, have long recognised the subversive power of puns.

So too have the Chinese authorities, who made headlines more than three years ago for complaining about wordplay in advertisements and broadcasts. Such wordplay could, in their words, lead to "cultural and linguistic chaos".

John Pollack, communications consultant and author of The Pun Also Rises (2011), believes that puns are threatening because they "reveal the arbitrariness of meaning, and the layers of nuance that can be packed onto a single word".

Those who dislike puns tend to be people "who seek a level of control that doesn't exist", he adds.

"If you have an approach to the world that is rules-based, driven by hierarchy and threatened by irreverence, then you're not going to like puns."

People with a soft spot for cheeky humour, on the other hand, always will.

Just look at how a fairy tale of two princes and a princess living with their pesky butler OB Markus in the 38-room Oxley Castle has flown off the shelves of bookstores here.

Linguistic gatekeeper Samuel Johnson - the father of the modern English dictionary - famously disliked puns and even tried to blot them out of Shakespeare's plays, Pollack notes.

Had this been rolled out nationwide, imagine how much fun he would have deprived us of.

Hordes of literature majors would throw up their hands in dismay as they realise they now have nothing to write about in their dissertations. As would, I suspect, the author of A Dictionary Of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns And Their Significance (1989).

Novelist Martin Amis says that puns "offer disrespect to language" and "make words look stupid". Meanwhile, late modernist poet and prolific punster James Merrill observes that a pun "merely betrays the hidden wish of words".

The power of puns comes from the notion that words, like people, have reputations and surreptitious desires - they almost grow legs and start walking around if our imagination lets them. The magic of puns - from Diagon Alley to Grimmauld Place - seems to rest on the belief that words are animated with a life of their own.

Granted, the most successful kind of humour - to my mind - doesn't usually involve puns, but happens when someones draws an unexpected link between two things that you didn't know you wanted them to make.

For instance, in his unflattering review of spy thriller Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015), The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw describes Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as "fantastically dull and uncharismatic". The two men in the movie, he says, have "all the sexy danger of a pair of M&S men's underwear models".

And the most famous advertising slogans - Just Do It; Think Different - are clear, unambiguous, with no puns intended or otherwise.

But it wouldn't be fair to expect the humble pun to punch above its weight, would it? For those of us who haven't yet outgrown our childhood liking for wordplay, there's no need to start pretending now.

A world without puns might be a less exasperating one, but it would certainly have a punishing - yes, I'm stopping now - effect on our general levels of happiness.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2018, with the headline 'Pun control is a laughing matter'. Print Edition | Subscribe