The first time someone told me that puns aren’t funny was my senior year of high school. We were studying Shakespeare, and my teacher pointed out that double meanings are frequently employed in the language of Shakespeare’s plays. I had noticed this, too, and thought they were hysterical.
“Of course,” she continued, “they are now considered to be the lowest form of humor, and most people don’t find them amusing.” I mentally hung my head in shame.
When Shakespeare contemplates the family feud between Claudius and Hamlet, he doesn’t just call those characters “kindred,” and leave the actor to add the irony. He considers the whole word visually, and sees within it “kin,” and “kind.” He thinks about how those two words relate within the context of the play—Claudius and Hamlet are kin, as uncle and nephew, stepfather and stepson, and yet the audience knows that they are also related as murderer and avenger. They are kin doubly over, but they are not exactly kind towards one another. He puts this whole thought process into Hamlet’s manic and churning mind, and composes the aside: “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”
For all of the posthumous literary shame that Shakespeare might be afforded for his puns (a significant amount of which, to be fair, are phallic double entendres), they’re still, you know, the work of a genius. To a modern ear, they may slip by unnoticed when recited aloud, but can be better discerned on the page. There, they elicit a belated “hmm” or “ahhh” of recognition—too late for a laugh, but nonetheless a clever creation. The linguistic trickery, despite its “lowbrow” notoriety, is shrewd and intriguing.
As I’m no Shakespeare, my puns are rarely granted more than a groan, sigh, head smack, or a less-than-occasional “get out.” For as long as I can remember, my relentless punning has been a running joke among my friends. It’s become understood that in any given conversation, I will see some kind of homonymic overlap between something someone has said and the context of the situation. I always feel compelled to point it out, no matter how sheepishly. It’s been called my “Tumblr talk,” or a “pun processor” lodged in my brain with the switch permanently stuck to “on.” My impulse to make puns in social situations is primarily due to their sonic and contextual nature—if I don’t say one I’ve just thought of right here, right now, then the joke is lost forever. I strike out more often than not, but I’m incentivized by the rare times I hit a home pun.
I can see why puns are despised. Something is considered funny when it is incongruous with its context, a subversion of expectations. Puns undermine the listener’s comprehension—they make us believe we have understood one meaning of a phrase or sentence, only to see the second, certainly sillier connotation a (crucial) moment too late. The set up is either strained, or doesn’t exist at all. By their very nature, puns are forced, and blatantly intentional. A July 2015 Atlantic article entitled “Why Do Puns Make People Groan?” explains that puns demand a response, whether it is good or bad. As author Julie Beck points out, “I see what you did there” can go either way. Perhaps, the average “punster” just comes across as a scheming and interrupting attention-seeker.
I have invoked enough emergency nonsequiturs and shaky “AMIRITE?”s in social situations to testify that all of these things are definitively true. And yet, I still love puns. I suppose I view and comprehend speech as a kind of puzzle—albeit one of those thousand-piece puzzles you only attempt on a rainy vacation with your parents. Each hole in the puzzle is clearly designed for a specific piece to fit in it, but what if the puzzle piece that’s tantalizingly close at hand almost, but not quite, fits into the hole? You would laugh, perhaps genuinely, mostly with pity, at an adorable child attempting to shove the wrong piece into the right hole. I am that child, and, yes, I’m adorable.
To me, discovering “30 Rock” was akin to some kind of spiritual of awakening. The Facebook feature that allows you to tag just someone’s first or last name, thus enabling me to insert said names into similar-sounding words, was likely engineered just for my sense of humor, and for the bane of everyone on my Newsfeed. I think a number of the people in my life might rue the day I downloaded the Hamilton soundtrack. I couldn’t tell you exactly when or how my punning began, but I do recall that as an (actual) child, I tended to take everything very literally—sarcasm came later to me, and sticks and stones were often preferable to the words of schoolchildren. My puns, I’ve theorized, are a way to make a game out of the speech that flies carelessly out of mouths and implant, sometimes unsettlingly, into the ears of those around us. If each word can be just as easily replaced with another, especially with one that sounds exactly the same but means something totally different—a joke, even—then not every casually flung phrase could hold the weight its flinger bestowed upon it.
A few weeks ago my roommate pointed me to an article brazenly entitled “Sometimes Puns Are a Sign of a Damaged Brain.” Great, I thought; my punning has pathology. Closer examination (read: I actually read it) of the article revealed that an unfortunate man in Germany was diagnosed with “Witzelsucht,” (a word just begging for dissection) or “joke addiction.” Damage left by an unnoticed stroke caused him to constantly make nonsensical jokes, compulsively, to the point that he would wake up his extremely annoyed wife in the middle of the night to run them by her. Thankfully, the jokes themselves were not puns in particular—the headline merely saw an opportunity to poke fun at the most hated part of comedy.
Though I usually avoid the comments section of the Internet as a rule, I scrolled down to see what others thought of the bombastic title. They were indignant, sometimes cruel to the author, and filled with puns. (“I’d like to give this brain doctor a piece of my mind!” crowed one (4/10.)) They were exactly the kind of remarks that I expected, though I felt annoyed, too, on behalf of my fellow punsters, and condoned the Internet trolling for once. My kin, I believe, were in this instance allowed to be less than kind.
Olivia Munk is a senior English concentrator in Leverett. She does not have brain damage, and proved it by writing this article in Fifteen Minutes.