Not Jest For Pun: A Surprising History Of Wordplay

The Pun Also Rises
The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics
By John Pollack
Hardcover, 240 pages
Gotham
List Price: $22.50

Read An Excerpt

"A pun is notoriously difficult to define, but it's a type of wordplay, and it takes many different forms," says John Pollack. "The most common type of pun is the humorous use of a word in such a way that because of its sound, you can interpret it in more than one way."

The definition of "pun" might be hard to put a finger on, but ask John Pollack, the 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Champion, for an example, and he'll have something like this at his fingertips:

"Knock knock.
"Who's there?
"Isabelle.
"Isabelle who?
"Is a bell necessary on a bicycle?"

If you groaned at that joke, you're not alone. Puns are sometimes cringe inducing — but sometimes they hit the funny bone at just the right place, and besides, the pun is actually the subject of serious academic study.

After he won the Pun-Off championship, Pollack put that penchant for verbal manipulation to work as a presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton. But with his new book, The Pun Also Rises, he's returned to his longtime love.

"The brain goes through some incredible gymnastics to capture the meaning of puns," Pollack tells Weekend Edition Sunday's Liane Hanson. "And if you think about it, it's incredibly complex. Especially when two words can sound exactly alike."

Take that Isabelle knock-knock joke, he says.

"Your brain has to backtrack because you're thinking it's a name, and then it breaks apart the component syllables of that word, 'Isabelle,' and applies them with new meaning to a new situation."

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John Pollack competes in the 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships.

With his championship-tested mind and high-profile pedigree, Pollack is just the person to defend the pun as wordplay that goes well beyond its frequent derision as the lowest form of humor.

"The power of a pun comes from two things," he says. "One is its ambiguity, and second is: that it enables you to pack more meaning, or more layers of meaning, into fewer words. And so if you're trying to convey complex ideas, puns can be really powerful tools to do that."

And they've been used to make political points since long before Pollack served under President Clinton. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Almost every major language uses puns, Pollack says, but English is particularly friendly. Why?

"We're sort of a mutt of languages, which led to a lot of overlapping sounds and a lot bigger vocabulary with which to play. And that always makes for great punning."

In fact, the history of the form goes back at least as far as a 7th Century B.C. text about floods. Sanskrit, he adds, is rich with puns, and perhaps even the source of the word itself. In that language, he notes, "'Pundit' is the person who unpacks ambiguity, and 'pun' may come from the same root, although that's disputed."

John Pollack is a former presidential speechwriter and the winner of the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off. His previous books include Cork Boat and The World on a String: How to Become a Freelance Foreign Correspondent. i i

John Pollack is a former presidential speechwriter and the winner of the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off. His previous books include Cork Boat and The World on a String: How to Become a Freelance Foreign Correspondent. Gotham Books hide caption

itoggle caption Gotham Books
John Pollack is a former presidential speechwriter and the winner of the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off. His previous books include Cork Boat and The World on a String: How to Become a Freelance Foreign Correspondent.

John Pollack is a former presidential speechwriter and the winner of the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off. His previous books include Cork Boat and The World on a String: How to Become a Freelance Foreign Correspondent.

Gotham Books

The pun's long history might not be consolation to those who hate it when their dad jokes about "buns" every time he puts hamburgers on the grill, but hoping for puns to disappear is a losing game. To not pun at all, Pollack writes in The Pun Also Rises, would be more difficult than we can imagine.

"There are an infinite number of concepts to describe in this world," he tells Liane Hanson. "[But ] there are a very limited number of sounds. And so to use a limited number of sounds to describe an infinite number of ideas, there's bound to be phonetic overlap. Punning, therefore, is almost inevitable."

Excerpt: 'The Pun Also Rises'

The Pun Also Rises
The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics
By John Pollack
Hardcover, 240 pages
Gotham
List Price: $22.50

Bears Go Barefoot

Lightning flashed, the plane bucked, and another gasp swept the cabin. I cinched my seat belt even tighter and stole another glance into the inky abyss, where I could just make out the red light on the jet's wingtip, flapping like a bird.

The plane shuddered again, and I thought of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a giant ore freighter that had snapped in two during a fierce gale when I was a boy, plunging into the icy depths of Lake Superior. The wreck had been big news in my home state of Michigan.

The ship, longer than a football field, had sunk so fast that the captain didn't even have time to radio an SOS. All hands were lost.

Tonight, at odds with the gods in this riveted aluminum tube some thirty thousand feet above the Ozarks, I tried to push that ship from my mind, but couldn't. At least, not until what felt like a giant fist suddenly smashed the plane from above, as if an angry Zeus were trying to crush a beer can. In an instant, some two hundred yellow oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling and the plane nosed into a sudden, steep descent.

The announcement that followed was familiar but startling in its reality: "Please place the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally."

For the next several minutes I breathed cold, pure oxygen and felt, in the pit of my stomach, the altitude falling away. My decision to board this flight to Austin, Texas, had been somewhat impulsive — a journey of choice to compete in an absurd contest: the eighteenth annual world pun championships. I had secured a spot in the tournament only ten days earlier, after punning with the organizer over the phone. He'd seemed reluctant to have me fly down at first, but he needed one last competitor to fill an early bracket. Why not a sacrificial lamb from Michigan?

Like a boxer sparring before a big fight, I'd spent the ensuing week punning with my dad — like me, a proud punster — training myself to come up with successive puns in five seconds or less. According to the rules, I'd be paired with an opponent and given a topic. Alternating, each of us would have five seconds to respond with a pun on that topic, back and forth, until someone missed. It would be single elimination. If I came up blank just once, or if the judge ruled that a pun I'd made was not actually a pun, I'd be out.

Apart from internalizing the five-second deadline, there wasn't much I could do to prepare that would add or detract from my punning abilities. I'd been playing with words since I learned to talk. In fact, my first complete sentence in life had been a pun. As my mom tells the story, I was two and a half years old and still struggling to string a sentence together — a skill some kids pick up earlier. "I guess he's just a little slow," she thought.

Then one morning I toddled into the kitchen. "Johnny," she said. "Go get your shoes. I don't want you walking barefoot."

I looked up at her, put my hand over my mouth and giggled impishly.

"Bears go barefoot!" I said.

And I've been punning ever since.

As the plane dropped, I had to concede that if my number really was up, at least I would go down en route to the world championships. Far better a plane crash in the sticks than a car accident on my daily commute into the Detroit suburbs, where I worked as a project manager at The Henry Ford museum.

My mortal concerns were, fortunately, premature. Somewhere below ten thousand feet, the plane leveled off. The captain, coming on the intercom for the first time, apologized for the turbulence, assured us everything was under control and told us that we could remove our masks. Apart from all those masks dangling from the ceiling, the rest of the flight seemed almost normal.

Two days later, I stood on a stage in an Austin park outside the O. Henry Museum, looking out over a crowd I estimated at five hundred people and trying to calm myself as the emcee — a tall Texan in a straw hat — introduced me and my opponent. I was already outmatched; my adversary was a bespectacled, fifty-something man named George McClughan who, as the judge pointed out, just happened to be a former champion. Talk about a bad draw.

After reviewing the rules, the judge asked McClughan to reach into a galvanized bucket and pull out a slip of paper, which featured one of the hundred or so topics on a list that my thirty-one fellow competitors and I had been given just minutes earlier. There had been too many to actually study, but enough to make my mouth go dry with fear. What if I froze, and couldn't come up with a single pun?

The judge read McClughan's slip aloud: "Air Vehicles."

"George, why don't you go ahead and start," the judge said.

"Oh, all right," my opponent said. He looked so relaxed just standing there at the microphone, his shirt untucked, smiling at the crowd. And why not? He was a seasoned champion, and I was just some no-name walk-on from Michigan.

"If a helicopter had babies," McClughan asked me, "would it be a baby Huey?" It took me a moment to get it — a clever reference to both the cartoon duck and the workhorse chopper of Vietnam. He was going to flatten me.

My mind flashed to all the aircraft hanging from the rafters back at The Henry Ford museum. "I hope I come up with the Wright Flying Machine," I said.
"Wait, wait . . ." It was the judge, holding up his hand. "It's gotta be a puh-un." In his Texas drawl, pun was almost a two-syllable word.

"The Wright Brothers," I said, "W-R-I-G-H-T — I hope I pick the Wright Flying Machine."

A sudden cheer swept the audience. The brawl was on.

"That was so plane to see," McClughan said, grinning.
I struggled to come up with a response, but saved myself at the last second with a crude pun on Fokker, the defunct Dutch aircraft maker.

McClughan didn't flinch. "I guess if I'm going to B-52 next week I'm never going to C-47 again," he said.

"Well ... ," I said, scanning the audience, "I'm looking for a Liberator out there."

McClughan toyed with me. "This guy's pretty good," he said. "I was hoping he'd B-1 bomber."

I was finding my rhythm. "You don't think I'd take to flight, do you?"

"I don't know," he answered casually. "You're just up here winging it."

"U-2?"

In its economy and perfect congruence of sound and meaning, a pun couldn't get any purer. I could pun for an entire lifetime and never make a better one, ever. It was a knockout punch, and the crowd roared. But the Irish Texan refused to fall.

"A bear made pies for its babies," he replied. "One Piper Cub."

And so it went, pun after pun, as we pummeled each other — and the English language — without mercy. From aircraft parts to the space program to the Battle of Britain, McClughan always had a good riposte ready. He was, in a word, unflappable.

"My girlfriend Mimi came over last night, and we had sex," he bragged. "She was a real screaming Mimi." An obscure reference, but valid. The Screaming Mimi was a type of German rocket artillery from World War II.

From the storm clouds of my subconscious, a Japanese warplane zoomed down to counterattack. "I heard that was a Zero."

The crowd was still cheering when the bell rang. Our seven-minute round was over. Exhausted, I stood there for a moment, heart pounding, mouth dry, my brain seizing up like an overheated engine that's run out of oil. A little dazed at my survival, I turned to walk off the stage.

"John! John! John!" It was the judge. "Don't go anywhere. You've got the Wright Patter, son."

I returned to my microphone. In the case of a tie, the judge explained, the audience got to decide who advanced to the next round. I looked out at the audience. Whatever happened, I could go home proud; at least I hadn't crashed and burned.

The vote wasn't unanimous, but when asked to cheer for the "punster of note," the crowd chose me. I don't know who was more stunned, me or McClughan. A gentleman to the last, though, he shook my hand warmly. Almost in a stupor, I made my way off the stage in search of the concession stand. Before facing my next opponent, I needed a round I could really enjoy — a cold beer.

For the next hour or so, I watched others compete and marveled at their brilliant wordplay. One contestant, a pudgy fellow with a bristly mustache and nasal voice, was particularly talented. By day, he worked as a paramedic.

Onstage, he was a butcher, dismembering his opponent pun by pun. Word had it he was so competitive that he actually spent the off-season (in this case, all year) studying videos of championships past — gleaning technique, building up a repertoire, honing his skills. And year by year, he'd been climbing through the ranks. Twelve months earlier, he'd finished third.

Knowing it would be tough to advance, I just tried to savor my first-round victory and enjoy the show. All too soon, though, the announcer called my name and that of my next opponent. Downing the last of my beer, I hurried up to the stage, only to discover that my adversary was the paramedic punster himself.

The judge announced the topic: "Historical facts about the state of Michigan."
I gulped.

"Just kidding," the judge said, laughing. "The subject is football."

"Nice try," the paramedic said, smirking.

And off we went, trading bad puns on every conceivable aspect of the game. It quickly became apparent that the paramedic had a one-track mind. "I can't wait until this is over," he said in an early exchange, "so I can find a woman with a tight end."

A few puns later, he returned to sex again. "Let me get back to the subject of that would-be lady friend. One of the things she always liked about me was the Longhorn."

Even though we were just a mile or so from the Texas campus, a chorus of boos rippled through the crowd. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who was starting to understand just why his would-be girlfriend was hypothetical.

"I think my energy is running low, and his energy is running low," I said, trying to steer the exchange in a better direction.

"We need to call up the Chargers."

But apparently he didn't need energy — he needed to get laid. "Getting back to that hypothetical girlfriend," he said, "I'd like to Raider treasures."

Mercifully, the bell rang. Our seven minutes were up, and I had survived. Still, by any measure, the paramedic had gotten off more good puns and would probably win the vote.

To my surprise, the judge asked the audience if we should just keep going on football until one of us lost. The crowd roared its approval.

From The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack. Copyright 2011 by John Pollack. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

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The Pun Also Rises

How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics

by John Pollack

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