On the pun

In the Times op-ed column “Pun for the ages,” Joseph Tartakovsky considers the lowly status of the pun. Joey is the former assistant editor of the Claremont Review of Books, now back in school studying law. In his overview of the pun, he observes that P.G. Wodehouse doesn’t use them, while Shakespeare freely deployed them in the dialogue he wrote for his characters.

Joey adds that many of the puns in Shakespeare are bawdy. The relationship between bawdy humor and the pun is not accidental. Eric Partridge used a pun in the title of the illuminating book he wrote on Shakespeare’s lewd jokes — Shakespeare’s Bawdy, of course. The lowly status of the pun is reflected in Shakespeare’s use of it for bawdy humor.

Joey notes the obsession that afflicts the habitual punster: “Some stricken with pun-lust sink so far into their infirmity that their minds become trained to lie in wait for words on which to work their wickedness. They are the scourge of dinner tables and the despised prolongers of office meetings, some letting fly as instinctively as dogs bark and frogs croak, no longer concerned even with drawing applause; they simply can’t help themselves.”

Joey concludes on a merciful note: “Punning, it seems, like every non-deadly sin, is easier to excuse than to resist.” I appreciate Tartakovsky’s law: “[T]he least intolerable puns are those that avoid the pun’s essential puerility.” Among the several examples that Joey provides in the column, some are easier to excuse than others. Tartakovsky’s law suggests why.

UPDATE: Reader Philip Jackson adds: “The life of a punster is one of tireless dedication. I’ve been waiting over thirty years for the opportunity to say that the storm petrel, which migrates all the way from the far north to Antartcica each year, is an admirable bird indeed.” As of this morning, Joey’s column is the second most popular story on the Times site. There must be a lot of this going around.

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