All reasonable and intelligent people despise puns. At least they should. That seems to be the message from what some reasonable and intelligent writers in the past have said on the subject.
John Dryden (1631-1700) called puns “the lowest and most grovelling kind of wit.” Joseph Addison (1672-1719), writing in the Guardian in 1714, said that it may be of great use to immortalize people’s puns just “to let posterity see their forefathers were a parcel of blockheads.”
No one detested puns more than Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). He “had a great contempt for that species of wit,” said friend and biographer James Boswell. Indeed, Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), defined pun—or quibble as he preferred to call it—as “A low conceit depending on the sound of words.” He defined punster as “A quibbler; a low wit who endeavours at reputation by double meaning.” A pun, then, according to Johnson, is a feeble play on words by some wiseacre.
The Reverend Sydney Smith (1771-1845) would be expected to know something about the matter, being one of the wittiest men of his day, but in an essay titled “On Wit and Humour,” he claimed to have little to say about puns. “The wit of language is so miserably inferior to the wit of ideas,” he explained. “Sometimes, indeed, a pun makes its appearance which seems for a moment to redeem its species; but we must not be deceived by them: it is a radically bad race of wit.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) also had no use for the pun. “It snaps the thread of discourse,” he argued, “blows out the candle, and puts an end at once to all conversation. It is like a troublesome and odious insect, a wasp. No! It wants the dignity of a wasp; it is a mosquito, a gnat!”
Alluding to the cringe-and-groan factor peculiar to this type of word play, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) stated that “the goodness of the true pun is in direct ratio of its intolerability.” In other words, a pun’s excellence is determined by the amount of mental agony it causes its hearers. The more cringes and groans it produces, the better the pun.
Yet if puns be so intolerable and odious, why is it, one may ask, that so many otherwise reasonable and intelligent writers have resorted to them? Puns have been detected in the The Odyssey, the Bible, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. They appear in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides, Sir Thomas More, John Donne, and Jeremy Bentham. And, of course, there is Shakespeare. That greatest of all literary geniuses was a notorious punster. It seems that half the footnotes to his plays exist only to explain puns that may have been clear to his contemporaries but are no longer clear to us.
Dr. Johnson considered the love of puns to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest faults. In his Preface to Shakespeare, Johnson made the following criticism:
A quibble [pun] is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible…. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
Yet even the mighty Johnson, vilifier of puns and critic of Shakespeare, occasionally indulged in what he claimed to despise. In this he was like most people. They groan at someone else’s wretched pun, but let a poor, barren quibble spring up in their own minds, and they can’t resist inflicting it on others. Johnson once attended a luncheon at All Soul’s College, Oxford. This was at a time when the American colonies were rebelling against the mother country, England. “There were some American apples on the table,” recalled a woman who was present, “and when one of the ladies took one Johnson said solemnly: ‘It is to be hoped, Madam, that these apples will not revolt.’”
Boswell describes once going with Johnson to find a toyshop “to which he had been directed, but not clearly.” He was told only that it was at the corner of St. James Place. The two looked for the toyshop for some time but could not find it. Finally Johnson said, “To direct one only to a corner shop is toying with one.” Boswell later commented, “I suppose he meant this as a play upon the word toy: it was the first time that I knew him stoop to such sport.”
Hester Lynch Thrale, however, records another of Johnson’s puns. She once voiced high praise for the Whig politician Dudley Long, to which Johnson remarked, “Nay, my dear lady, don’t talk so. Mr. Long’s character is very short. It is nothing. He fills a chair. He is a man of genteel appearance, and that is all.”
Likewise, Rev. Sydney Smith, despite his hostility to this “radically bad race of wit,” could not suppress a good pun when it occurred to him. A woman parishioner once asked his advice for a motto to be engraved on the collar of her dog Spot, and Smith suggested the line from Macbeth, “Out, damned Spot.”
Among some reasonable and intelligent writers who have openly defended puns, rather than condemn them, was Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Not only a great satirist, but also an inveterate punster, Swift regarded punning as both an art and a social virtue. He wrote, “Punning is a virtue that most effectually promotes the end of good fellowship, which is laughing.” In an essay titled “The Art of Punning,” he laid out 34 rules, of which the following is a selection:
Rule 1. The Capital Rule. He that puns, must have a head for it; that is, he must be a man of letters, of a sprightly and fine imagination, whatever men may think of his judgment; like Dr. Swift.
R. 9. The Rule of Risibility. A man must be the first that laughs at his own pun.
R. 10. The Rule of Retaliation obliges you, if a man makes fifty puns, to return all, or the most of them, in the same kind.
R. 11. The Rule of Repetition. You must never let a pun be lost, but repeat and comment upon it till every one in the company both hears and understands it.
R. 17. The Sophistical Rule is, fixing upon a man’s saying which he never spoke, and making a pun upon it, as, ‘Aye, sir, since you say he was born in Bark-shire, I say he is a son of a bitch.’
R. 21. The Rule of Concatenation is making a string of puns as fast as you can, that nobody else can put in a word till you have exhausted the subject.
R. 32. The Rule of Scandal. Never to speak well of another punster.
Like Swift, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) loved a good pun—or a bad pun—depending on your perspective. He once wrote in a letter, “I never knew an enemy to puns who was not an ill-natured man.” Lamb, author of the delightful “Elia” essays and friend of Coleridge, Wordsworth, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt, conceded that a pun was but humor’s poor relation. Still he maintained that a pun is a “noble thing per se. It is entire. It fills the mind; it is as perfect as a sonnet; better. It limps ashamed, in the train and retinue of humour.”
Hazlitt observed that Lamb always made the best pun and the best remark in company. When told of a man who had lampooned him, Lamb vowed retaliation. “Very well,” he said, “I’ll Lamb-pun him.”
Type the word pun into Google’s search engine and you will get nearly 300 million hits. Many, if not most, link to people eager to share their favorite puns with others or to impress the world with their own cleverness. Read only a few thousand and see what side you come down on—the side of the haters or lovers of puns. You will come away with either a greater appreciation for the verbal ingenuity of mankind or with an urge to hang yourself.