In Defense of Pun

As published in Commentary section in Dallas Morning News – June 9, 2018.

Published Article Link

Written by Jim Wasserman

When it comes to puns, I am a hot dog. I relish them. It’s hard to ketchup with me, because I am a mustard-ent supporter of them.

At this point, you either love me or hate. Either way is OK by me, but please allow me a chance to defend the pun and why I think we Americans could use more of them in our lives.

As a culture, Americans have celebrated, encouraged and border-line worshipped productivity. From the Puritans who brought to Plymouth Rock their work ethic (H.L. Mencken purportedly defined Puritanism as “that horrible feeling somebody, somewhere, is having a good time,”) to today’s industrial leaders and politicians bragging and lording over other countries our GDP and all other measures of output, we love to be busy innovators ahead of the crowd in what we do and what we resultingly possess.

We all want better lives, but to the extent we Americans now suffer from a horrible feeling that somebody, somewhere, is having a more productive time, much of the rest of the world is beginning to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Bhutan introduced to the world a Gross National Happiness Index, and the 2018 World Happiness Report lists the U.S. as No. 18 (In the Happiness Olympics, it’s a sweep for Scandinavia, with Finland, Norway and Denmark taking the top three spots and Iceland a close fourth).

A 2010 study by Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School indicated that day-to-day emotional happiness peaks when one earns an annual income of about $75,000, and that incomes above that really don’t enhance that sort of happiness. Yet onward we push.

A good indication of Americans sacrificing happiness (or at least contentment) is lunch. School “lunch hour” today is often as little as 15 minutes, with many kids telling you they had to work through lunch or have a meeting. Adults fare no better; just look at how common it is to see Americans walking and eating because they have to get some place to make their lives better, perhaps able to afford better food that they gulp and go.

Hourly workers lament the growing cases of “time theft,” when an employer gets an employee to work during supposed time off. Contrast that with a country like Spain, where people are expected to take their time to enjoy meals, including the flavors, sights, and, perhaps most of all, their meal companions. If you are ever playing a guessing game as to how many people you will see in a European city walking and eating, the lowest number will win. (You’ll also probably know how many Americans you’ve seen.)

So how does all this justify the pun? The University of Colorado’s Humor Research Lab (HURL), which has done some serious study into what makes us laugh, broadly defines “funny” as that which causes a “benign violation” of norms and expectations. A pie in the face at a formal dinner is a violation of etiquette but no one is hurt, so it’s funny; a fist to the face in such a circumstance is not benign, so it’s not. The problem is that, as we become more accepting (which is a good thing) of different standards of behavior, it is harder to have agreed social violations (witness “dressy casual”), and as we also become more sensitive to other people’s feelings (again, good), it is more difficult to see things as benign.

Enter the pun to the rescue. It is, by definition, a violation in that it gives second, often twisted, meaning to a word, and aside from the evil eye it engenders, it is benign. Even more, it is that hiccup in reality, that pause in our productivity, that gives us a respite from the work-till-you-drop atmosphere.

Language was invented to help us communicate and work better together, but a pun stops that mission in its tracks and makes us all pull our noses away from the grindstone, if only to let out a collective groan. We may be divided by politics, contentious about class, gender or race, but we all deep down simultaneously love and hate word play.

So, the next time someone proffers a pun that de-tracks your train of thought, derails your railing against something, or evokes a crazy (loco) emotion, leave your cars behind and choo choo on the moment of non-productive bliss. As a wise person once said, a good pun is its own reword.

Jim Wasserman is a retired teacher in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. 

Leave a Comment