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from howard richler's latest book



Howard Richler is a Montreal-area word nerd and author of these seven books on a variety of language themes: Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, Can I Have a Word With You?, Strange Bedfellows and his most recent book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit ( May 2016, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver).


Notwithstanding the millions of dog and cat owners, like me, robotically scooping poop and changing litter, some misguided souls regard our species as the dominant one on the planet. I suppose this delusion is based on our ability to employ language that allows us to communicate far more efficiently than other animals. We thus control the planet, and perhaps will eventually destroy it. Language, however, also performs a far less ‘serious’ purpose.

I'm referring to the propensity of homo sapiens for language play. Most people cavort with their mother tongues and revel in the sounds. Language serves a recreational purpose and many people also often ‘re-create’ words for their amusement. The proclivity to pun is hardly an elitist process. Walter Redfern, in his book Puns tells us that “Punning is a free-for-all available to everyone . . . It is the stock-in-trade of the low comedian and the most sophisticated wordsmith,” and Redfern informs us that it appeals particularly to people of a “certain temperament.” It is my hypothesis that the inability to play with language, in one form or another, may augur some form of pathology, (or, at the very least, a proclivity to believe students should be allowed to bear arms in schools).

Pronouncing definitively on what constitutes true wit is a subjective endeavour. Complicating matters even more is the fact that the commission of language wit occurs not only wittingly, but also unwittingly and sometimes even half-wittedly. When we manipulate language for the purpose of wit, I designate this process ‘arranged’ humour. At times, however, humour comes from mistakes that one has made when it appears that we are dealing more with a twit or a nitwit than with a wit. This form I designate as ‘deranged’ humour. Ergo, I am making the case that what is not ‘arranged’ is thus ‘deranged.’

The arrangement and derangement of words in the English language is facilitated by the multiplicity of meanings many words enjoy, and much wordplay treats homonyms as if they were synonyms. The flexibility of English aids greatly in this process. For example. Over twenty per cent of verbs started out their lives as nouns. If you take a gander at your body, for example, you will find that virtually every part has been verbified so that, from head to toe, you can head a committee, face the music, knuckle under, foot the bill and toe the line. Also, starting in the twelfth century, the English language underwent a process that eliminated so many declensions, conjugations and precise syntax that sometimes it seems that virtually any word can be interpreted in many ways, and often lewdly. For example, the verbs, ‘come,’ ‘do,’ ‘fix,’ ‘have,’ ‘know,’ ‘make’ and ‘put’ are all replete with sexual innuendo. These factors contribute to a greater propensity for puns in English than in many other languages that are more highly inflected.

Schadenfreude aside, even the kind-hearted enjoy hearing people mangle language; we even revel when they pretend to commit some language screw-up. In fact, the difference between a pun and a fabricated screw-up is not always apparent. Hence, the distinction between 'arranged' and 'deranged' is often murky. Sometimes one pretends that language has been mangled when the reality is that the process of the ‘mistake’ is rather deliberate, and quite cleverly constructed. Also, many a pun is without wit either because it has been used ad nauseam or is not inherently funny, but here again subjectivity raises its ugly head. There are some patterns as to which people like a particular joke, but to a large extent the process is an individual one that transcends a host of factors such as education, gender and class level.


If you are a reticent punster, steel your courage and silence not your tongue, for according to linguist David Crystal in Language Play almost “two-thirds of the jokes in a typical language collection rely on puns.” The humour in language is often deliberate but many have posed this ludic question: To pun or not to pun? Puns have been much maligned by a host of commentators. Freud described puns as “cheap,” and Oliver Wendell Holmes assailed them as “verbicide.” Many writers in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century England, such as John Dryden, Daniel Defoe and Joseph Addison believed that the English language approached perfection and that the inherent ambiguity in puns created confusion and impoliteness. In an article in the Tatler in 1710, however, Jonathan Swift mocked this “affectation of politeness,” because he realized, as Shakespeare did, that individual words possess multiple interpretative possibilities. Puns have had other defenders. Three hundred years ago, Henry Erskine countered the statement that “a pun is the lowest form of wit” by adding that “it is therefore the foundation of all wit,” and Oscar Levant opined that it is the “lowest form of humour – when you didn't think of it first.”

Punning has been a language fixture through the ages. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus introduces himself to the Cyclops, as Outis, which means ‘no man’ in Greek. He then attacks the giant, who calls for reinforcement from his fellow monsters with the plea “No man is killing me!” Naturally, no one rushes to his aid, proving that the pun is indeed, mightier than the sword. Cicero was another habitual grave punster. When a man plowed up the burial ground of his father, Cicero couldn't resist interjecting, “This is truly to cultivate a father`s memory.”

In the Bible there are many puns on names. In Hebrew, adamah means ground and edom means red. The name Adam may derive from the red earth whence he came. The name Jacob is derived from the Hebrew word for heel (ah'kev), because he held onto the heel of his older twin brother Esau at birth. However, award Jesus the prize for best Biblical pun. We read in Matthew 16:18: “Thou art Peter ( Greek Petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra), I will build my Church.” Pope Gregory, one-time guardian of the Rock, punned when he stated that English slaves were Non Angli, sed angeli; “not Angles, but angels.”


Tis said that in the art of punning, Shakespeare was great shakes and without peer. Not everyone, however, appreciated the bard’s puns. Lexicographer Samuel Johnson said that “a quibble was to Shakespeare his fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to do so.” In his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson defines “quibble” as “a low conceit depending on the sound of words; a pun” and ‘punster’ is rendered as “a low wit who endeavours at reputation by double meaning.” Hardly high praise. Twentieth-century literary critic William Empson was even harsher. He felt Shakespeare’s punnery showed “lack of decision and will power, a feminine pleasure in yielding to the mesmerism of language, in getting one’s way, if at all, by deceit and flattery, for a poet to be so fearfully susceptible to puns. Many of us could wish the Bard had been more manly in his literary habits.” Empson was reiterating a point made by eighteenth-century writer Joseph Addison who believed that puns had to be strictly differentiated from the more “manly Strokes” of wit and satire. Samuel Coleridge, on the other hand, was much more understanding of Shakespeare's penchant to pun and stated that “a pun, if congruous with the feeling of a scene is not only allowable . . . but oftentimes the most effective intensive of passions.”

One study uncovered 3000 puns in the Bard's works, with an average of 78 puns per play. Many of these occur at climactic moments. In Macbeth, after Macbeth has killed the King, Lady Macbeth displays a lucid dispassion when she avers, “I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal. For it must seem their guilt.” At the beginning of Julius Caesar, the cobbler says he is a “saver of lost soles, and if they are in danger, here-covers them.” In Romeo and Juliet, the dying Mercutio exits stage left with this vaudevillian pun: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” This is but one of the estimated 175 puns in Romeo and Juliet. Even the great Dane himself, Hamlet, doggedly can't forgo expiring without the pun “the rest is silence,” proving the maxim that “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Nowadays, we look at puns as merely exercises in jocularity but we must bear in mind that in Shakespeare’s era, there were few unsuitable moments for puns. Even religious puns were acceptable. We find in Shakespeare's contemporary John Donne’s Hymn to God The Father the line “The Son will shine as he shines now.”

Most of the witty wordplay in Shakespeare is wanton and somewhat aggressive. The liveliest exchanges are between lovers who fight their way to the altar where the wordplay is usually both seductive and initially hostile. Shakespeare's puns can also be quite lewd. Some of the bawdiness occurs in seemingly innocuous phrases like “too much of a good thing,” spoken by Rosalind to Orlando in As You Like It. In Shakespeare's day, “thing” was a common euphemism for genitalia.

Some scholars see sexual allusions everywhere. Frankie Rubinstein in Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and their Significance claims that the following words all have sexual connotations: ‘abhor,’ ‘abominable,’ ‘about,’ ‘absolute,’ ‘abuse,’ ‘access,’ ‘accommodate,’ ‘acorn,’ ‘acquaint,’ ‘adventure,’ ‘advocate’ and ‘affection’ and we're not even halfway through the letter A! Rubinstein tells us that in Elizabethan vernacular, the word ‘surgeon’ refers to the treatment of venereal disease, and thus it was not shoes that were being mended, but the bottoms of whores. In Cymbeline we have this line: “Will force him think I have picked the lock, and taken the treasure of her honour.” Here “pick the lock” refers to the act of deflowering. In Hamlet, the Prince refers to Polonius as a ‘fishmonger,’ and is angry because he believes Polonius is responsible for Ophelia rejecting him. The term ‘fish’ was used in the sixteenth century as an off-colour allusion to a woman. Hence, Hamlet is essentially calling Polonius a pimp.

Many of Shakespeare’s puns would nowadays be considered groaners. On the other hand, the fact that so many people enjoy bad puns shows that they serve a purpose and even contribute to a sense of community, for they transcend class distinctions. One should remember that Shakespeare is also employing them as a device to release tension in an audience.


Lewis Carroll was another inveterate punster. In Through the Looking Glass we have this passage: “Here the Red Queen began again. ‘Can you answer useful questions?’ she said. ‘How is bread made?’ ‘I know THAT!’ Alice cried eagerly. ‘You take some flour— ' ‘Where do you pick the flower?’ the White Queen asked. ‘In a garden, or in the hedges?’ ‘Well, it isn't PICKED at all,’ Alice explained: ‘it's GROUND—’ ‘How many acres of ground?’ said the White Queen. ‘You mustn't leave out so many things.’ ‘Fan her head.’ The Red Queen anxiously interrupted, ‘She’ll be feverish after so much thinking.’ ” The puns that Carroll uses are based on homophones and word ambiguities that are likely to be understood by a sharp ten-year-old. For example, when Alice tells the Duchess, “The earth takes twenty-four hours to turn around on its axis,” the Duchess retorts: “talking of axes” -- off with her head.” When the Mouse tells Alice, “Mine is a long and sad tale,” Alice is confused and asks him why having a long tail makes him sad.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is another great source for puns. Its protagonist Jack Worthing pretends that he has a black sheep brother named Ernest but only Jack is aware that he, in fact, is Ernest. In one passage Jack says, “Aunt Augusta I've now realized for the first time in my life the importance of Being Earnest.” Many of Wilde's puns serve the purpose of highlighting the narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy of Victorian society. This is the intent when Lady Bracknell asks, “Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the large railway stations in London? . . . Until yesterday I had no idea that there were families of persons whose origins was a Terminus.” As a member of the nobility, Lady Bracknell is mocking Jack's lack of knowledge about his family to underscore their different social ranks. For her, the marriage of Gwendolen Fairfax to Jack would result in a dead end -- or a terminus. For pure comic content, however, my favourite pun in the play is this famous quip by Lady Bracknell: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, is a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” This pun plays on the dual senses of ‘lose’ as ‘misplace’ and “have a loved one die.”

Some commentators have found the plethora of puns found in James Joyce's masterpieces Ulysses and Finnegans Wake to be offputting, but Joyce was unapologetic on this matter. He countered, “After all, the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church was built on a pun” referring to the aforementioned quip by Jesus in Matthew 16:18: “Thou art Peter (Greek Petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra) I will build my Church.” When asked whether many of the puns in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake were in essence trivial, nonplussed he retorted, “Yes some of them are trivial and some of them are quadrivial.” In other words, they have at least four sources, not three. (‘trivial’ literally means ‘three roads’). The trivium represented the three parts of classical liberal arts that included rhetoric, grammar and logic.

Many of Joyce's puns were rather naughty and at times he even “out-bawdied” Shakespeare. For example, in Ulysses we find this little poem:

If you see kay
Tell him he may
See you in tea
Tell him for me.

The words of this ditty when spoken phonetically spell out some rather crude swear words that are apparent to the trenchant reader.

Whether curmudgeons like it or not, more than half of all jokes rely on language play, and the vast majority of these include punnery in some form. But aside from the reality and large presence of puns, a pun often symbolizes a universe of possibility. It reshapes the language we use to describe the world and in that sense can be seen as a political gesture, even a revolutionary one. Shared laughter aimed at a common enemy can be a catalyst to audacity.

What constitutes a great pun is largely subjective. Here are two of my favourites:

A timid husband is unable to buy his wife's preferred anemones for her birthday and fearfully returns home bearing some greenery. To his surprise she gushes “With fronds like these who needs anemones? ”

A woman had twins and gave them up for adoption. One of them went to an Egyptian family who named him Amal. The other was adopted by a Spanish family who called him Juan. Years later, Juan sends a picture of himself to his birth mother. She tells her husband that she would also like to have a photograph of Amal. Her husband responds, “But they’re twins! If you’ve seen Juan, you've seen Amal.”

Here's a brief sampling of puns both sublime and ridiculous from some well-known and not so well-known pundits:


Groucho Marx – Time wounds all heels.
Edgar Bergen – Show me where Stalin`s buried and I`ll show you a Communist plot.
Dorothy Parker (asked to give a sentence with the word horticulture) – You can lead a horticulture but you can`t make her think.
H.L. Mencken – Television is like a steak: a medium rarely well done.
Peter De Vries – The things my wife buys at auctions are keeping me


We also see much punnery in the political arena, invariably with a vituperative thrust:

Lloyd George could not see a belt without hitting below it. (Margot Asquith)

I only wish I knew {Bill Vander Zalm} before his lobotomy. (Kim Campbell)

Clement Attlee is a modest man, who has a good deal to be modest about. (Winston Churchill)

{Stafford Cripps} has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.
(Winston Churchill)

{William Gladstone }is a sophisticated rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his verbosity. (Benjamin Disraeli)

His {Ronald Reagan}ignorance is encyclopedic. (Abba Eban)

In a disastrous fire in President Reagan’s library both books were burned. And the tragedy is he hadn’t finished coloring one. (Jonathan Hunt)

{Gerald Ford } is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time. (Lyndon Baines Johnson)

He compresses the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know. (Abraham Lincoln) (Perhaps, Lincoln's target was his political opponent Stephen Douglas.)

When they circumcised Herbert Samuel they threw away the wrong bit. (David Lloyd George)

Since in politics, it takes at least two to tangle, we have the following verbal sparring:

Labour MP Bessie Braddock: Winston, you’re drunk.

Winston Churchill: Bessie, you’re ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober.

Nancy Astor: If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee.
Winston Churchill: And if I were your husband I would drink it.

William Gladstone: You sir, shall either die of hanging, or from a social disease.

Benjamin Disraeli: That all depends, sir, whether I embrace your politics or your mistress.

Australian PM Paul Keating: John Hewson is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.

Keating’s political foe John Hewson: I decided the worst thing you can call Paul Keating, quite frankly, is Paul Keating.


For more of Howard Richler:
How Happy Became Homosexual
Linguistic Correctness Redux
No Apology for Neology
The Enigmatic Palindrome
We Stand on Cars and Freeze
As You Like It.
Can I Have a Word With You

The Significant Other Conundrum

The Oxfordization of Poutine


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