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Cannonball Read IV: The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack

By dsbs | Book Reviews | December 11, 2012 | Comments ()


cropPunAlsoRises-final.jpg

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?

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of dsbs's reviews on the group blog.

(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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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • pissant

    As in all forms of humour, you can’t tell me that this or that pun is objectively funny or good.

    I think I disagree with you. I definitely believe in objectively bad humor. I think that might mean that I must believe there is objectively good humor, but I haven't finished making up my mind. I'll probably just land on the idea that there is objectively bad and good humor, but not all humor is one or the other and quite a bit of it is personal taste (perhaps the majority of humor falls into this category). Perhaps the examples of "good" puns in the book that you found dull just weren't objectively good. That would be the author's fault.

  • ,

    I write headlines for a living. I spend as much time as I can allot in an eight-hour shift to thinking about them and trying not to go for the obvious, trying to be witty while at the same time making the head germane to the story. I usually have space for just four or five words to work with and maybe two seconds at best to try to lure a reader into looking at the story. I've been doing it for 30 years and it still ain't easy, is what I'm saying.

    There's a walking trail behind my office, and sometimes when the weather's nice I'll take my lunch break and walk the trail while I write and rewrite headlines in my head, because I know, as one genius put it, that there's a thin line between clever and stupid, and I try try try for clever. Occasionally I'll even "what the fuck" and go for one that maybe 10 percent of the readers will get, because the smart ones enjoy being reminded that they're smart.

    And sometimes the obvious headlines fall right into your lap, and it's five minutes before deadline, so ...

  • Donna SHerman

    That's really interesting to hear. While I was in school, it was always a matter of coming up with our own headlines, and I always tried to avoid puns. But I never got very good marks on those headlines either - the ones that got the most praise were generally the ones that made use of the pun. @76c1a96113fd0894bcbfd0f3c9862c77:disqus However, like anything, it's a matter of personal preference. I don't think the first half of my review was unfair to the book on the basis of my bias against the pun, and the second half was just an opinion which, like any, can be taken with a grain of salt.

  • buttinsky

    To assume the punning headline as the "hackiest, easiest" device a headline could be created from invokes another variety of humour - ironic unknowing in the combined fundamentals that define the very existence of "punning headlines." Puns were a common part of legitimate newspaper headlines as early as Ben Franklin's, as necessary as water to soap.

    The comma commenter above is grossly understating the difficulty of a headline writer's job. Whether it be using historical quotes ("One small step for man..."), a superlative such as 'amazing' or 'stunning', or a subjective approach ("Tragedy in the wake of...", "Disappointing results in the last...") it is the means that best gets the message across, which is more difficult than one might think when you do it for a living. It's not hard for me to imagine, and I've never written one.

    Headlines regarding events that affect all people need to be understood by all people - if a familiar, juvenile pun serves that purpose, then the headline has worked. I've always laughed at those lame 'Highways or Dieways?' bumper stickers, but, yes, I get the message. Job well done.

    Dentists have to use needles and drills as part of their jobs; if the same results could be achieved without those tools, they'd be called 'sadists' and probably not be practising.

    Maybe the book is a good read, but complaining about its subject to the point of showing a glaring lack of understanding one of its byproducts, such as a "punning headline," narrows the review itself: should I read it because it seems interesting, or to see how much I agree with the reviewer?

  • Donna SHerman

    He actually went into the history of punning in newspaper headlines in the book. That doesn't make me like them any better.

  • BWeaves

    I like puns. My husband has a co-irker (college professor) who talks in nothing but puns. To spend an evening with him is to have everyone in the conversation talk nothing but puns. Actually, now that I think of it, I remember the best man at our wedding was also a good punster. He wrote letters to people where every other word was the name of a bird. "I'm penguin this letter on a lark." They were brilliant. Once, he saw an ad for a job where the secretary had placed the ad for a "cosmetologist" instead of for a "cosmologist" (astronomer). He wrote a cover letter and fake resume and sent it in using puns of women's makeup. "Research topic: The Max Factor."

    To me a bad pun is one that's a stretch and doesn't really work. I quite admire a good pun.

  • ,

    Me too. It's similar to a good couplet in a song or poem, don't you think?

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