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Not Jest For Pun: A Surprising History Of Wordplay

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Not Jest For Pun: A Surprising History Of Wordplay


Not Jest For Pun: A Surprising History Of Wordplay

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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I was driving to work the other day behind a big truck belonging to Johnson's Piano Movers. The company services people in the Washington metropolitan area. Written on the back was this phrase: We are a grand company with upright movers at prices that will console you. Did you groan? You're not alone.

Puns are sometimes cringe-inducing but sometimes they hit the funny bone at just the right place. The pun is actually the subject of serious academic study and has a storied past. So we're going to turn to a pun pundit, a man who knows a thing or two about words.

He used to be a presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton. John Pollack is also the author of the new book "The Pun Also Rises," and he's in our studio in New York.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN POLLACK (Author, "The Pun Also Rises"): Thanks, Liane.

HANSEN: Define precisely: What is a pun?

Mr. POLLACK: A pun is notoriously difficult to define. But it's a type of wordplay and it takes many different forms. 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.

HANSEN: You write: the pun goes way beyond a lowly form of humor. I'm reminded of what Ben Franklin said, for example: We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

How would you describe the power of the pun?

Mr. POLLACK: The power of a pun comes from two things. 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.

HANSEN: Why is English such a pun-friendly language?

Mr. POLLACK: What's interesting is that puns cross just about every major language family. But English is especially rich because it's such a mix. 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.

HANSEN: Sanskrit apparently is also rich in puns?

Mr. POLLACK: Yes, indeed. And in fact, there are some thought that the word pun traces all the way back to Sanskrit. Pundit is the person who unpacks ambiguity, and pun may come from the same root, although that's disputed.

HANSEN: Does the brain have to wrestle with this idea? I mean once confronted with a pun, does the brain sort of go into overdrive?

Mr. POLLACK: The brain goes through some incredible gymnastics to capture the meaning of puns. And if you think about it, it's incredibly complex, especially when two words can sound exactly alike.

So for example, knock, knock.

HANSEN: Who's there?

Mr. POLLACK: Isabelle.

Mr. POLLACK: Isabelle who?

Mr. POLLACK: Is a bell necessary on a bicycle?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLACK: So 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.

HANSEN: Do you have a favorite pun, either from like popular music or literature?

Mr. POLLACK: Well, I always think that the best puns are those we come up with in the moment. The Pun Championship this year is May 21st in Austin, Texas. And if people want to come down there and listen to it, you'll hear great puns go back and forth. One early round that I experienced, the topic was Air Vehicles. And my opponent said, well, I'm going to be 52 next week so I'm never going to see 47 again. And I said, well, I'm going to be 29 next week so I'm never going to see 17 again. And he said, oh, you're just up here winging it. And I said you, too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Former presidential speechwriter John Pollack is the author of the new book "The Pun Also Rises." He joined us from our New York studio.

Thank you.

Mr. POLLACK: Thank you.

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