As someone who wrangles words for a living, I have fondness for puns. I always hope the English football team loses simply because I love the anguished wit of the Fleet Street headlines that inevitably follow.
These losses cause the tabloid press to dedicate its energy to writing pithy lines like Rout of Africa and Eins, zwei, drei your eyes rather than hacking in to Hugh Grant’s mobile phone. Surely everyone is a winner in this situation. Except the English football team.
Plenty of people share my love for puns but the general perception is they are a guilty pleasure, something we enjoy when we should be reading Charles Dickens.
Puns are held in such low esteem because they are associated with the low culture of tabloid headlines and Christmas cracker jokes.
Not even the most committed cultural studies theorist can argue zingers likes “What’s a specimen?” (an Italian astronaut) are worth more than a groan but just as we should not judge all music on the lyrical output of Rebecca Black, nor should we condemn puns based on a joke told in between the turkey and pudding.
At their best puns are able to convey a maximum amount of meanings in a minimum amount of words.
One of the best puns I have seen in recent years is the title of the 2010 Hilary Swank film Conviction.
Swanks plays Betty Anne Waters, a single mother who puts herself through law school in order to represent her brother, who she believes has been wrongly imprisoned. Waters’ deep-seated conviction of her brother’s innocence drives her to overturn his conviction for murder.
No homonyms, no bawdy humour, just an elegant piece of word play that sums up the entire film in a single word.
The effectiveness of puns is so great that even those who criticise them will end up using the device.
English novelist Martin Amis argues puns “offer disrespect to the language, and all they manage to do is make words look stupid”.
This contempt did not stop him including a pun in the subtitle of arguably his best novel, Money: A Suicide Note.
Amis also provides one of the best instances how evocative a pun can be in his 2003 novel Yellow Dog, the story of Xan Meo and his wife Russia.
When Xan rapes his wife he “invaded Russia” and the reader winces, not at the pun itself but rather the brutal imagery it conveys. This is an example of words being far from stupid.
And if Amis cannot unwittingly make puns respectable then consider two classics of English literature, William Shakespeare’s Richard III and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
The title of Wilde’s play refers to the name Ernest, a false identity one character has assumed in order to woo a girl, as well as the inordinate importance polite society placed of being earnest and serious.
Shakespeare begins Richard III with the famous speech “Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
The “sun of York” is King Edward IV, who both wore a sun as his personal symbol and was the son of the Duke of York.
Amis, Shakespeare and Wilde all used the pun not for a cheap laugh but to convey meaning in an interesting and efficient way.
The best puns are true double entendres, with both meanings understandable independent of each other while still contributing to the overall image.
“Son of York” is just as relevant as “sun of York” to the context of the speech and each makes sense on their own.
While the sub-editor who wrote Fritz All Over isn’t the the literary equal of Shakespeare, they both draw from the English language’s grand tradition of puns.
By all means, ridicule your drunken uncle the next time he tells you how hard it is taking inventory in Afghanistan because of the tally ban. Just remember remember the pun’s higher form, for it is merely a humble servant striving to bring laughter and meaning to our communication.