Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack

This new book by John Pollack (I accidentally spelled his last name Pollock, but luckily noticed there was something fishy about that) is all about the pun and its role in human history.
As he explains, no one is certain where the word comes from but it seems possible that it is from the word pundit, which means “a learned Hindu versed in Sanskrit” (5), and Sanskrit is a complex language that has many puns in it. Another suggested etymology is that it comes from the Latin punctilio, which means “fine point” (9). Besides the issue of etymology, it is also hard to clearly define what a pun is. It’s not exactly the same as wordplay; rather “a pun transforms one thing into another by relating them through sound or, in the case of visual puns, sight. A play on words only works if the two things it relates are already intrinsically connected, either by etymology or function.” (9)
From the word itself, Pollack moves into detailed discussions of brain research, how we hear sound/language, and how the evolution of human bodies primed us for the ability to crack jokes. Evolution made people walk upright and then because of the change in gait, which caused a concomitant change in hip size, there were lower birthrates. All this “required compensatory survival skills to make up the difference. Among those that emerged, most likely about 150,000 years ago in East Africa, were the interrelated capacities for language and for abstract thinking.” This eventually also led to a sense of humor, which obviously also helps in difficult times, as Pollack points out. (49)
But puns have had their ups and downs throughout our history. At one point, it was thought to be the sign of intelligence to use puns, and there were even pun duels (such as there were sword fights), whereas at other times, it was argued that puns were inappropriate and that they shouldn’t be part of intellectual discourse. Another point of contention has been whether they are appropriate for children (this is, incidentally, something that has been part of my research). But as Pollack writes: “it’s this very wordplay that exposes children to the mechanics of semantics, long before they every tackle grammar in a classroom. Studies also indicate that children’s facility with language has a major impact on their ability to excel in other subjects, too, including math and science. Playing with language helps them discover similarities, differences and patterns, as well as how to make bold conceptual leaps” (105).
One of the major misconceptions about puns is that they have to be funny. In fact, as Pollack explores in his work, puns can be used to make people think about language and meaning, or to refer to taboo issues (“the more rigid a society becomes, the greater its reliance on subtexts, especially puns, to address sensitive or taboo topics.” (140)), or to serve a range of other functions. Pollack writes: “One should remember, though, that puns are at their core defined by multiplicity of meaning, not always humor. The common expectation that puns should always be funny, or die in the attempt, is a relatively modern development.” (65)
Pollack also discusses why people have negative feelings towards puns and why some groan when they hear one. He says that “if a pun’s secondary meaning does not clearly echo or reinforce a conversation’s greater context, such wordplay can come across as deliberate and disruptive nonsense. This is likely a principal reason why many people who strongly prefer order to ambiguity often express such antipathy, even hostility, to any and all puns.” (145)
If you’re expecting a joke book, look elsewhere (although you can watch Pollack on a pun safari). If you want to learn about puns through history and how puns influence culture, this is the book for you. Still, Pollack does offer some puns, including one of my favorite jokes: “A distraught patient rushes into a psychologist’s office. ‘Doctor, doctor! I think I’m a wigwam, then I think I’m a teepee. I’m a wigwam, I’m a teepee. I’m a wigwam, I’m a teepee…’
‘Relax,’ the shrink says. ‘You’re just too tense.’” (43)
If you’re too tense, why not take a break and read this book? It’s fascinating and funny, and it proves that there’s always something new and worth learning under the pun.
And if you want to win a copy of this book, check back here for the next post!

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