Monday, June 04, 2012
An End to Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Us Punsters: A Review of "The Pun Also Rises" by John Pollack
John Pollack has dug deeply into the history of communication and civilization to vindicate the much-maligned pun. By extension, he has helped those of us afflicted with the mutant punning gene to regain a modicum of self respect. The subtitle of this little gem says it all: "How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics."
The author brings us all the way back to Chinese punsters offering double meanings in Mandarin ideograms, as well as unearthing hieroglyphic and cuneiform puns. The author, a former World Pun Champion, has researched thoroughly the rise and fall of the pun as an accepted - and often celebrated - literary form. He even invokes cognitive science to explore the complex and sophisticated neural processes at work when one person coins a pun and another person struggles to understand its multiple layers of meaning. He even offers a deconstruction of the normal reaction to a pun: the groan.
In discussing the derision that puns often elicit today, he offers this perspective:
"To many people, such antipathy is no surprise. Because just as most of us know a few people who cannot resist making puns, we also know others who can't stand them no matter what. Historically speaking,however, such antipathy and its cloak of intellectual respectability constitute a relatively new development in Western civilization. In fact, for thousands of years, the pun actually enjoyed a privileged status in Western philosophy, art and religion - a status that far transcended that which it often suffers today." (Page 57)
"But simply disliking puns is insufficient to make them disappear. Even Joseph Addison, who some three centuries ago managed to tarnish the pun's reputation so badly, once conceded that 'the seeds of Punning are in the minds of all men, and tho' they may be subdued by Reason, Reflection, and good Sense, they will be very apt to shoot up in the greatest Genius, that is not broken and cultivated by the rules of Art.'" (Page 145)
Pollack cites Google as a current example of regular employment of puns:
"The top of Google's search page provides a steady parade of visual puns, too. Colloquially known as Google Doodles, these visual puns tweak the familiar Google logo to play off current events, historic anniversaries and popular holidays, swapping out the Os for visually similar symbols such as Olympic rings, Christmas wreaths o even half-even pierogies.
Google's name itself is a play on the word 'googol,' which denotes the number 10 [to the 100th power]." (pages 147-8)
This worthy volume is pun-blished by Gotham Books. Buy it and enjoy!