Listen to this story
In defense of puns.
Without the use of puns…okay, maybe one pun…okay, maybe two…or three…
Some guy once besmirched the play on words by calling it the lowest form of wit.
Which speaks to a time-honored tradition in the literary community of running smear campaigns against things that whoever runs the campaign can’t do very well.
Take, for example, prepositions at the ends of sentences. There’s a commonly repeated apocryphal story about Winston Churchill lambasting the whole culture of complaining about the ultimate preposition with the potentially Churchillian proclamation, “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
Which is an excellent example of how hard it can be to separate the legend from the man, as the old saying will go in a few hundred years when the saying “separate the legend from the man” becomes an old saying.
It’s also a good example of how we sometimes bring legitimacy to our object lessons by bringing celebrity names into it. It sounds like a much more impressive exclamation if it came from Churchill, right? A man famous for being British and for having some kind of significant effect on history, or something. He couldn’t get where he got without a firm grasp of how to accurately say what he wanted, right?
So if what we need to do is support our claim about something to do with the English language, then who better to cite than a guy who often said stuff like the thing we want other people to believe. “Know what I heard once about prepositions? ‘Up with this arrant pedantry I will not put!’” Yeah, who said that, fella? “I don’t know. Churchill, or something.”
This is how legends are born. Not with strife, but by the convenience of the compelling storyteller.
The point, though, isn’t whether Churchill said it or not.
The point is, in this apocryphal story, where did we get the idea that we can’t end a sentence with a preposition? I mean, we all know it. We have all heard it. We heard it from some guy. Sometimes that guy is our English teacher, to be sure. But where did they get it?
I’ll tell you.
They heard it from the culture of complainers. And perhaps the complainers had a nugget of legitimacy, but maybe they didn’t. The main point is that writing which sufficiently communicates the thrust of its ideas has done what it needs to do. Therefore, if sometimes that means I sometimes end a sentence or two with a preposition, but I get my point across, then let it be so. It worked for Shakespeare. It worked for Churchill. It works for Woody Allen. So it works for me. End of lesson.
Which means that I have to ask myself: Hey, do puns work in my social circle? Do plays on words make people smile, when I play on their words in their company? Does it lower the intelligence of conversation to express double meaning words in appropriate moments? Do I abase my wit by commenting on this subject by observing that we’re dealing with a bit of a double-edged sword, here?
I worked on that pun for two days. Pity it isn’t any better.
Because the thing is, I think it’s whiny to complain about puns. Not just whiny. I think it represents a degree of ignorance hardly to be sustained by free thinking individuals.
Considering the stodgy source of the complaints, though, I can’t say I feel too surprised this complaint arose. Because as it turns out, the people who made it popular to complain about puns come from the quorum of a man called Samuel Johnson. I should say punning in English, because Samuel Johnson and his stodgy quorum did not, as far as I know, speak French or anything like that. I don’t think that they have the same argument about puns in France as we do in the English speaking world as a result. We may be the stronger for the struggle. Maybe not, though. I don’t feel prepared to comment on that.
You can tell a lot about my opinion about Samuel Johnson and his quorum by my use of the term stodgy. Because Mr. Johnson’s main claim to be included in the history books comes from a war that he had against spontaneity. He stood with single-minded purpose against the forces of flippancy-based fun. If he had a favorite stand-up comedian, then his favorite stand-up comedian would be the Easter Island heads. If he had a favorite color, it would be mohair. If he had a favorite breed of dog, it would be piano bench, because they wouldn’t ask for a frisbee even once.
A man who, if the best you could say of him was “there goes a reliable headache,” he would consider it a graceful compliment and an honorable title to bear.
Which, you know, I never met him, so I don’t know.
I suspect, though, because the main thing he did to get into the history books was enslave language.
Which is another way to say that he wrote the first English language dictionary.
I don’t know if his main purpose was to provide ammunition for centuries to come to pedants who delight to correct people who mistake the subtlety between “envy” and “jealousy.”
I don’t know that Mr. Johnson liked to see poets tremble and sweat for lack of an ability to express themselves “accurately,” a skill that they never realized that they needed till they had such a thing as “standardized usage” to contend with. Before such a thing as a dictionary, a poet had no reason to worry about dictionary definition and what a possible “misuse” would mean about his or her reputation and future employment as a poet, whatever misuse means. Before dictionaries, a poet knew where he was, and had no reason to worry about the derision of a fame-grubbing community ready to stick a hot poker into any chink in the ego of their peers, armed with the will to fleer in their comparison between words set down by the poet and what the “experts” say that the words mean. It’s hard out in the world for a poet, out on the streets, among the gangs. Samuel Johnson’s love song to the phenomenon of “accuracy” has had, at best, a mixed effect on the happiness of the poet, the rhetorician, and every other person who wishes to turn a phrase and change a heart.
It should not shock us to imagine that a mind determined to constrict language should be a mind set against puns. And maybe the will and ability to write a dictionary means he’s exactly the right person to trust about puns. In a real sense, the act of making a play on words defies the laws that a dictionary definition imposes. Dictionaries try so hard to say that every word means something in particular, and a pun invites people to imagine that a word means more than one thing at once. It’s a vicious rebellion, and if you’ve got the will and the ability to write a whole dictionary then maybe your opinion about puns may become the most valid opinion around.
Then again, maybe the amount of wind used to defend “standard usage”, pleading with the human psyche to stop all that lateral thinking, which is what a pun gives you an opportunity to do, suggests how much power the pun really has. I have never heard it said that you can judge a thing’s power by the power of its opposition, but if it hasn’t been said then some dude somewhere should adopt it as a saying so that I can quote them.