Final Word

When words do not pull punches

Pun.jpg

Watching one of those now, oh so common, rowdy debates in parliament on television I wondered why politicians don’t pull punches anymore – and then suddenly it hit me!

If you are one of those who immediately picked up on the word play in that opening sentence of this week’s Final Word, you have a feeling for that wonderful, and one of the oldest of all word games: punning.

There are a number of descriptions or definitions, if you want, for the pun. In fact, the art of punning is so varied and versatile that it can be divided into a number of groups or classes.

In broad terms the pun – or if you want to sound academically informed, you can also call it paronomasia – is a form of word play that suggests two or more meanings to a sentence or expression by exploiting multiple meanings of words either spelled the same way or sounding the same. The object is usually to achieve a rhetorical or, more often, humorous effect.

An example of the ‘homophonic pun’, using word pairs that sound alike, but have different meanings, would be the one coined by the American stand-up comedian, author and actor, George Carlin: “Atheism is a non-prophet institution.”

Let’s first, for the sake of the purists, explain that the pun differs from the malapropism, which is the use of an incorrect expression to allude to something else than what is actually said.

The pun at least pretends to use the right expression or word to create an additional, humorous, or even absurd, meaning.

The word ‘pun’ can be traced back with certainty to only 1644 and was first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1669. Debate and speculation about its origins are ongoing, varying from the Latin word punctu, meaning point, to Italian puntiglio, meaning ‘equivocation’ or ‘trivial objection’.

There is strong evidence that the word settled in the English lexicon after Abraham Cowley in his comedy The Guardian, first performed in 1641, introduced a character by the name of Mr Puny, a “pretended to wit”. In a later edition of 1661 the adjective 'Punish', to describe Puny’s kind of wit, appears.

Be that as it may, and although we do not know how far back in the spoken language the tradition of ‘punning’ goes, the practice goes back just about as far as the written word, including the Sumerians’ pictograph system of writing and the Egyptians’ hieroglyphs.  

The Roman playwright Plautus was famous for his puns and word games, a tradition to be followed by other famous writers like William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and comedians like George Carlin.

Puns have also been the stock-in-trade of politicians, something to which George Orwell alluded when he wrote: “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Puns are also the foundation on which most jokes of the ‘knock-knock’ genre are build, like this one by John Pollack who, in 1995, won the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship:

"Knock knock.
"Who's there?
"Isabelle.
"Isabelle who?
"Is a bell necessary on a bicycle?"

Final word on politics and puns

In the early 1980s, as I was about to embark on a new career in politics, I was playing a round of golf with a good friend. While we were walking after our balls on the first fairway, I shared my doubts with him as to whether I would make the cut, so to speak, in politics.

His advice to me: “Don’t worry. Being in politics is much like playing golf; you are often trapped in one bad lie or another.”

by Piet Coetzer

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