Cannonball Read IV: The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack
Or “How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics”
How do you feel about The Pun? Do you love the irreverence it stands for? Loathe the feeble predictability of the thing? Read this book and possibly change your perspective, or at least wrestle with your ambiguous feelings toward the little nuisance while gaining some interesting insights into history, language, culture, and the mind.
Like so many male parental units, my dad is an avid and persistent punster - the automatic groaner that is a “dad joke” often takes the form of a pun, and my dad rarely dabbles in any other kind. I have spent my life groaning and eye-rolling at what I considered terrible puns, and as revenge, or perhaps merely a counter-argument, my parents brought this book home, smirking as they placed it on the table in front of me.
The Pun Also Rises is a short and light read, full of fun facts about language and punnery that are not widely known (well, to me, anyway; for instance, did you know that the first documented pun was a visual pun - a drawing of a woman that not all that surprisingly, when turned sideways, also looked like an erect penis). The author, John Pollack, has a fun and engaging writing style, and I always enjoy reading about different aspects of language - it helps remind me to appreciate the complex history, simplified (relatively) grammar, ridiculous evolution, inclusiveness, and infinite possibilities of my mother tongue. Pollack ends with an interesting and uplifting discussion on the nature of humour and creativity, and some fascinating insights into the evolutionary point of humour.
The book is divided into five chapters, loosely organised around the pun as viewed through different disciplines (such as linguistics, neuroscience, and history), and subdivided somewhat arbitrarily by punning headers. But despite this, Pollack digresses a lot, changing topics and following various trains of thought a bit randomly. In addition, even after acknowledging the lack of agreement over the definition of a pun, he neglected to actually define what he was considering a pun for the purposes of this book, giving the narrative a somewhat unfinished feeling.
This is definitely not a work of journalistic impartiality, either (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing). The Pun Also Rises has a lot of facts in it, but it’s also a 200+ page defence of the pun and its place in our lives. It definitely pulls you out of the reading flow when you are told in no uncertain terms that here is an example of a Good Pun which you find dull and predictable. As in all forms of humour, you can’t tell me that this or that pun is objectively funny or good. At one point, Pollack asks the reader:
Do people typically groan at all the puns that pepper reruns of The Flinstones, Gilligan’s Island, James Bond movies or the 1980 slapstick classic Airplane? Surely not.
Uh, yes. Yes we do. We groan because we’ve heard it one billion times before and it’s not. funny.
And John, let me tell you this: children not groaning at puns is n0t necessarily a point in your favour. Children also like listening to One Direction and eating poo. There is a reason the word “juvenile” isn’t synonymous with “good taste.”
I also take umbrage at the suggestion that the only reason my inadequate brain doesn’t grasp the splendor of the pun is due to my lack of creativity and genius.
Inevitably, some people will never like punning because it fogs up the lens of clarity through which they view the world and impose order, or at least the illusion of order. But if puns seem, at times, to confuse, they actually enlighten us through both laughter and insight.
Excuse me, my friend, but my frustration with puns has sweet NOTHING to do with craving order in language. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about clarity in language and the place of jargon* but I will not have it until we have cleared some things up.
I would call myself a pun skeptic, but not an absolutist. A pun agnostic, if you will. I’m still laughing at the racing horse named Marscaponi. But I know exactly where and when I lost my patience for puns, and it was the second time I looked at a newspaper.
The punning headline is, in my opinion, the hackiest, easiest, and most predictable way out of having to actually think of a catchy title. During my time studying journalism and Carleton University (a program I thoroughly enjoyed and am thrilled I’ve completed), one of the things that annoyed me most was the way we were instructed to write a lede (the first sentence in a news article). Insert Who, insert What, insert When, insert Where. What Pollack calls the “art” of “trying to pack as much meaning as possible into just a few words,” I call the quick and cheap placeholder so you don’t have to bother thinking up anything new or interesting. I’m not saying all headline puns are bad. I’m just saying so, so many of them are terrible.
The 24 hour news cycle and the stories that populate it are filled with the same paint-by-numbers journalism, where you might as well plug the plain facts into a computer program and have it spit out a script for all the originality and variation you get from so many journalists. I find this headline puns the equivalent of listening to The Doors - despite having never heard the song or read the article before, I know exactly what’s coming next because the first rhyme or pun that you came up with is also the first one that I did, so put a little bit more effort in, guys, COME ON.
In the section describing the pun’s “comeback,” Pollack actually highlights what bugs me most about the pun.
Meanwhile, if one needs a haircut, a pedicure or even just a soothing oatmeal bath, there are now nearly two thousand salons in the United States named A Cut Above, Shear Magic or Mane Event to meet that need.
Exactly. There are thousands of stores called the exact same thing because PEOPLE ARE LAZY. And personally, I think that is where the pun’s bad reputation comes from - even the legitimately good ones are tarnished by the sheer number of awful, trite, common, and horrendously overused ones.
But all my vitriol towards certain manifestations of the pun pales in comparison to that of some famous and influential pun critics throughout history, and Pollack doesn’t shy away from these hilariously vicious detractors. Samuel Johnson, the creator of the first English dictionary no less, describes puns as “the last refuge of the witless.” Joseph Addison wrote of his preferred method of humour infliction that he “would rather [suffer] from the paw of the lion than from the hoof of an ass” (the paw of the lion being the “manly strokes” of wit and satire, the hoof of an ass being, of course, the pun). Of course, in critiquing the pun, Addison himself made a pun out of the double meaning of “ass,” where presumably none was intended or even wanted, thus underscoring the joyful flexibility of language and the unexpected serendipity of it all working out anyway.
Well, what started off as a book review may have turned into a discussion on the merits of puns, and then morphed into a long-simmering rant about the current state of journalism. So back on topic: The Pun Also Rises is not perfect, but it is worth a read, especially if you’re looking for something light, but not unsubstantial.
Cannonball Read IV: 30/52
* The book itself even touches on this in the section on the rise and fall of the pun throughout history, bringing up excellent thought-nuggets such as the scientist’s desire to simplify language into one word = one meaning during the age of rationality and the stabilizing of spelling and grammar with the creation of the printing press, and alternatively, the unique thought processes that allow symbols and sounds to become so much more than the sum of their parts.
Just another interesting conversation starter…
I tend to groan for three main reasons:
1. because I reluctantly found it vaguely amusing (or, as Pollack describes it, “grudging admiration”)
2. frustration that the punner couldn’t resist going there
3. to attempt to discourage the waste of time
Do you groan at puns? If so, why?
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)
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