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The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics

The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics - John Pollack .What did the canned ham say when he left the hospital?“I’m cured!”Oh my God, this book was fun. Fun and informative. I never knew there could be so much to say about puns. For one thing: how many different types of puns there are. The whole first section describes the assorted varieties of puns. I won’t go through them all, but here are just a few: Tom Swifties: "Oh my shirt is so wrinkled", Tom exclaimed ironically.Knock-knock jokes: Q- What has four wheels and flies? A- A garbage truck Wellerisms: “I see”, said the blind carpenter, as he picked up his hammer and saw.Double entendres: (public service announcement) Our X-ray unit will give you an examination for tuberculosis and other diseases which you will receive free of charge.Transpositional puns: Mae West famously said “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.”Feghoot: Mahatma Gandhi was known for walking hundreds of miles barefoot. Over time he developed incredibly thick calluses on his feet, stronger than the soles of many boots. He also ate lightly, and fasted often, which left him frail and gave him chronically bad breath. Do you know what this made him? A super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.And Daffynitions: “Flabbergasted” –to be appalled at how much weight one has gained.That’s just a start. Hilarious examples are provided for all. What’s the point of developing a taxonomy of puns? It has to do with exploring how the brain processes language. Believe it or not, some linguists at the University of Cincinnati have successfully programmed a computer to recognize puns. It still has a poor record predicting which puns will be funny though. It turns out, puns aren’t just some antics with words; they tell us a lot about how the brain processes language. It occurs in a section of the brain called “Broca’s area”. As the brain is hearing a sentence, it tries to predict the meaning of the entire sentence before it is uttered… kind of like the predictive texting on a cellphone. Puns occur when words with multiple meanings, or similar sounds confound the brain’s guessing algorithm. As the brain listens, it makes a best guess on which meaning is intended, based on the context built up so far. In a pun, the end of the sentence changes the context, or reveals that the less-likely meaning was intended, or otherwise reveals to the brain that it needs to re-evaluate the sentence because there is unresolved complexity or ambiguity. Puns essentially make the brain do a double-take, because it isn’t confident its first-guess interpretation was correct. This all happens in a matter of milliseconds. By the time you become conscious of the pun, the brain has settled on a final interpretation, but the interpretational pitfall or potential alternative meanings linger, and the conscious mind enjoys the sensation of having identified and successfully resolved these. So take the pun:W.C. Fields was asked “Do you consider clubs appropriate for children? Fields replied “Only when kindness fails.”Before you get to the end, you take “clubs” to mean a place where drinking (and possibly stripping) occur, based on the context of W.C. Fields being a crusty old character. But then Field’s response changes the context, and makes you realize that “clubs” really meant something you beat a person with. Okay, I hope I didn’t suck the fun out of puns with that last part; I just really enjoyed it.Another fun bit which I never knew, is that there is a whole microcosm of bilingual puns, which you find in communities where a lot of people are proficient in two languages. Take this example, from a Polish community in America:Q- How do you kill a Polish herring?A- With a sledge hammer.The joke there, if you knew Polish, is that the Polish word for herring is sledzh, which sounds like the English word “sledge”. There are a bunch of these. I never knew.Then there is a whole section on puns in many different cultures, and puns dating back to the earliest written languages. Many Native American and Polynesian cultures have developed punning to a more refined and respected art than the West. The oldest pun, as near as anybody can tell, is from Mesopotamia- an account of a heavy rain, but the word for “rain” and for “corn” are very similar, and the author jokes about people dodging ears of corn falling from the sky. Okay... perhaps I didn't tell it well. I really hope Manny chimes in on the thread to tell us that it’s much funnier in the original Mesopotamian-ese.Do you ever tell puns when flirting with somebody? Pollack explains how humor definitely has a mate selection function. Not only does it demonstrate a certain verbal proficiency and intellectual capacity to construct a pun, but if you and your prospective mate both get the joke, it shows you share a certain amount of common knowledge to understand its contextual nuances. That implies a certain amount of shared understanding and perhaps compatibility. Take the Gandhi joke from above. To see any humor in it, you need to be familiar with the 1964 movie Mary Poppins. Unimpressed? That may not seem like much to go on, vis-a-vis mate selection in our day and age, but in cultures without the benefit of mass communication, this is more of a factor, and the text gives several examples where humor, especially puns, really do figure into courtship in those cultures.My favorite part is the section which relates how puns have been used to transmit dissident or subversive messages in oppressive countries. The double meaning of a well-constructed pun can get past a distracted censor, or can be plausibly denied if it is told on the street among friends. Again, the examples here are a lot of fun:Near the end of World War II, a popular joke in Germany was: “I recently acquired portraits of Hitler and Goering, but I’m not sure what to do with them; should they be hanged properly, or just put up against the wall?” Then in 1989, after the crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, it was common to see tiny bottles smashed on the street. This was a very passive-aggressive, pun-based expression of dissent against how the Tiananmen Square incident was handled. The nature of the pun is that the Chinese ideogram for “tiny bottle” was similar to the characters of Deng Xiaoping’s name (he being the leader who ordered the military in to break up the demonstrations), so smashing a tiny bottle was allegorically doing harm to Deng Xiaoping. Fight the power.*sigh* I’ll cut the review short here, before I give away the whole book. It’s a lot of fun, and there’s still a lot I haven’t spoiled yet. Get it! Read it!-Thank you so much, karen!