By Anthony Deyal
It used to be “Have fun will travel” until the World Trade Centre, Homeland Security and COVID-19 replaced travel with travails. Given that many Caribbean countries imposed severe punishments for breaking the present regulations restricting free movement, most of us find it better to be locked in than locked up. Before that, it was “Have Gun Will Travel”, an American Western television and radio series, featuring a hired gun named Paladin, that ran successfully for six years. Those who watched it on local television will remember the many sleepless knights in Charlemagne’s court and even some Knight Riders long before the Trinbago T20 Team.
Fortunately, long before that, even from the earliest biblical days to the present, through time and space travel, thick and thin skins, better or verse poetry and prose, one vehicle survived and even thrived. Have Pun, Will Travel. Instead of the old gunslinger Paladin, we have pun-slingers and itinerant comedians or hired-punstars. In fact, regardless of language or geography, the whole world is increasingly letting the pun-shine in and despite COVID-19, there is a growing global pun-demic.
Puns are not new. The dawn of time started with a big bang and a few puns. How does the Solar System hold up its pants? With an asteroid belt. What kind of music do planets sing?
Neptunes. There was even a pun about infinity but it didn’t have an ending. Then the age of the dinosaurs came and there was one with an extensive vocabulary. He was the mighty Thesaurus Rex. And thereafter the Almighty’s famous experiment of crossing one with a pig which the dinosaurs thought was more than a bit pun-descending. It was the tastiest mouthful of all time – Jurassic Pork.
At the time, not all puns were outrageously funny. While everyone recognised that Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden, nobody really knew what the Forbidden Fruit was. The Pope gave the job to Saint Jerome to include it in a new version of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate. The Latin adjective for evil was “malum” which also stood for “apple”.
As James Geary’s “In Defence of Puns” in the Paris Review explains, “The truth is, though, the apple is innocent, and this unjustly maligned fruit’s association with original sin comes down to nothing but a pun.” Actually, Genesis, given some of its claims, should really begin with “Once up pun a time.” Even Jesus, when he told his favourite disciple, “Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” was punning since “Peter” in Aramaic means “rock”. Of course, Peter was a bit dense and when advised by Jesus, “Come forth and I will give you eternal glory”, lagged behind and came fifth, winning only a bread, fish and pun-creatic juices for his trouble.
However, he was on the Heavenly basketball team because he denied Jesus three times and was also responsible for the gate receipts. Passing through Egypt where none of the mummies ever told secrets, preferring to keep everything under wraps, only Mark Twain revealed, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”. George Carlin added, “In Rome, the emperor (and Mark Anthony) sat in a special part of the Coliseum known as the Caesarean section.” Nobody is really sure about the Genesis of the Ark Noah built but it had to have been a modern creation since it was equipped with floodlights.
This is why James Geary says that puns are pins on the map tracing the path from word to world and containing two things at the same time – the primary, apparently intended import of a word or phrase and the secondary, usually subversive one. For example, “I entered ten puns in a contest to see which would win. No pun in ten did”, “Earthquake (a topographical error)” or “I ate four cans of alphabet soup and just had the largest vowel movement ever.” Even the German fairy tales had a character named Ra-pun-zel, and her sufferings at the hands of a wicked witch were not just tough, they were Grimm.
Shakespeare knew how to use “quibbles”, puns or word-play very well and averaged seventy-eight per play. These led to the story of the chicken who walked out of a production of Hamlet because he heard somebody threaten to “murder most fowl”. However, before I’m bard from making terrible Shakespeare puns, let me tell you a true story. I was good at puns since schooldays and one of my friends still remembers daring me to make a pun about the door to the school auditorium. I replied quickly, “O pun the door”. We both thought that was good but it had been bettered hundreds of years before by playwright Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s contemporary, who ruled the roost in those days.
When asked by a friend to concoct a pun, he quickly retorted, “Pun what subject.” His friend chuckled and responded, “Oh, the king” and without even pausing to think, Johnson countered, “But the king is not a subject; he is the king.” Even the Beetles were into puns. In the “Yellow Submarine” (1968) Paul says, “Look a school of whales” to which Ringo replies, “They look a bit old for the school.” Paul corrects himself, “University then.” Ringo pipes in, “University of Wales” to which John observes, “They look like drop-outs to me.” While to some people, puns like these are the lowest form of wit, there is one even lower. As science writer, Martin Gardner punned, “The bun, someone said long ago, is the lowest form of wheat.”
This brings me to the present. The writer who got me hooked on short-story writing, O. Henry (William Sidney Porter), has an award in his name for outstanding short stories but also, since 1977, there has been the famous O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin, Texas. In Britain, the UK Pun Championship is in February and in the US, this month, October is when the Pun-Off takes place. Those who attended the first one were told “Lend us an ear and we’ll give you more corn” and, because it is jest for a wordy cause, it continues to a-maize people who are out standing in their field. It started last Saturday, October 17, 2020, with 32 contestants.
The punniest of the punslingers will be announced next Wednesday. In the meantime, you can check out the site on punoff.com or take in some of the puns like “My son told me he’s transgender so that makes me transparent”; “Russian dolls are so full of themselves”; Robin to Batman, “Holy strawberries batman, we’re in a jam”; A cat complaining, “He threw sodium chloride at me. That’s a salt.”; and “The past, the present and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.”
*Tony Deyal was last seen telling this pun from the 19th Century (Victorian Era): Why should the number 288 never be mentioned in company? It is two gross.