This week we’ll get a little punny, which, of course, means we’re taking a look at puns. Some people love them and some people hate them. Alexander Pope defended puns, saying “they speak twice as much by being split.” The terribly clever Dorothy Parker called them “recreational linguistics.” (I think she meant that as a compliment.)

On the other hand, puns have been called the lowest form of wit.

I happen to like them because, you know, bad puns, that’s how eye roll.

As is usually the case with anything fun, there’s a psychological disorder associated with puns. It’s called witzelsucht, which Merriam-Webster defines as “Excessive facetiousness and inappropriate or pointless humor.” Well, I happen to think that a good pun is its own reword.

You might be surprised to learn that there are many types of puns. Macaronic puns are ones that use a mixture of languages, according to punster James Geary in his book, “Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It.” After pointing out that an elegant frankfurter is a “haute dog,” Geary addresses bad puns, stating that the ones about German sausage are generally considered the wurst.

And then there are Wellerisms, named after the wisecracking Sam Weller in Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers,” which consist of a statement, a speaker and a situation. “‘We’ll have to rehearse that,’ said the undertaker after the casket fell out of the car,” and “‘I see,’ said the blind man as he tripped over a log.”

Similar to Wellerisms are Tom Swifties, such as: “‘My steering wheel won’t turn,’ said Tom straightforwardly,” and “‘I can’t remember what I need at the store,’ Tom said listlessly.”

Punning isn’t a new thing, and certainly not an American one. Around 2500 B.C., scribes in Mesopotamia used puns to represent words in cuneiform. Fortunately, English just happens to be the perfect language in which to make puns because it’s a “mutt,” offering a variety of words from many other languages. Shakespeare loved puns, one example being when the fatally stabbed Mercutio says, “Ask me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man,” in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Even Benjamin Franklin made a pun when signing the Declaration of Independence, when he said, “We must all hang together or surely we shall all hang separately.”

I keep an eye out for puns related to words and writing. For example, I learned that when the past, present and future walked into a bar, it was tense. I also found out that you can’t run through a campground, you can only “ran,” because it’s past tents.

In my quest for literary puns, I went to my library (because I feel a tome there), and checked out my new thesaurus, which was nothing to write house about. Disgusted, I threw it toward the bookcase, and all the books fell on my head. I have only my shelf to blame.

By then it was time for my evening snack. I made synonym rolls just like grammar used to make, and then I mixed alcohol and literature as I read a Harper Lee novel — it was “Tequila Mockingbird,” I think.

That’s it for now. I need to get out of the house for a while because somebody just accused me of plagiarism — his words, not mine — so I’m going to go fishing just for the halibut.

If you think of any good fish puns, let minnow.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: