The pun is often quite an under-appreciated form of humour. Also known as paronomasia, its a device of word play that relies on the multiple meanings of words, or the alternate meanings of homophones, to make a joke or draw attention to an idea.
All my life, puns have been a much-loved form of humour in my family. Sometimes deliberate, other times incidental, my mother always took great enjoyment in teaching us to play with words and meanings, and to take great satisfaction in a well-executed pun.
Birds, flowers, food, animals, jobs… you name it, we punned about it.
One of my personal favourites occurred the first time we played Trivial Pursuit as a family. My brother-in-law asked me a Science & Nature question: “Which is bigger, the Moon or Uranus?” “Hold on and I’ll check!” I quipped, then bent right over and stuck my head between my knees. The combination of sight gag and pun had everyone roaring with laughter. Since then, the story has been passed on numerous times to friends, extended family, and the next generation.
Admittedly, some can be fairly lame, but when wielded by a person with great vocabulary and word power, a pun can be a thing of beauty. Shakespeare himself loved a good pun, incorporating many of them into his plays. Shakespeare often engaged in paronomasia in both humorous and more serious contexts as a way of exploring or developing key ideas..
Mercutio’s joke as he is dying, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” is a prime example, and a master stroke of dark comedy genius secreted within a play that actually has very little to laugh about.
The ability of characters such as Iago and Richard III to twist words using puns demonstrates just how easily they are able to manipulate both meaning and situations to their advantage, and provide powerful insights into each one’s evil genius.
It’s nice to think that Shakespeare and I are of the same mind when it comes to puns. They are fun; they are clever; they engage the intellect; they bring ideas into sharp focus. And the fact that there are a plethora of ways to use them means a lot.
Of course, some people just don’t appreciate that particular brand of humour. There’s no point, for example, trying to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they can’t help taking things literally.
Most of the time, when people protest about the way the English language is abused, it’s a case of the language continuing to evolve as it has always done.
One such example is the practice of verbing, which takes the noun form of a word and transforms it into a verb form… like ‘verb’ and ‘verbing’.
Just last week, I was talking with a friend about how annoying she finds it when people say “I’m going to action that.” I’m sure she sought me out for the conversation because I’m both a word nerd and an English teacher.
“Action is a noun! A bloody noun! How can so many otherwise intelligent people get that wrong?”
“It grates on us because it’s recent,” I said. “We’ll get used to it.”
“No, I won’t! It’s just wrong!”
“You know Shakespeare did it?”
“Verbing. He did it all the time.”
“You and your Shakespeare. It’s like he’s the answer to everything.”
“You know he invented the word ‘friending’, right?”
She rolled her eyes and walked away. She didn’t even flinch at my use of the term “verbing”, which is exactly the same thing as “actioning” in terms of the language. After all, ‘verb’ is a noun, too.
It is the recent examples of verbing, such as “actioning” an idea, that we notice because we’re not used to hearing them yet. When Facebook was new, people complained the same way about “friending”, but these days nobody thinks twice about that. At some point in time, someone decided that it was okay to talk about bottling fruit, or shelving books, and now those terms are just everyday language.
It is also true, however, that some things people commonly say are, quite simply, wrong.
My pet peeve is when my students are talking about sport or some other kind of competition, and they say “We versed Team X”.
This is a common bastardisation of the Latin versus, which means ‘against’. It is commonly used for sporting matches and legal cases, and is generally abbreviated as v. or vs., as in Black v. White or Blue vs. Red.
My first response is always to ask whey they wrote poetry about another team. “You played them. You opposed them. You clashed with them. You competed with them. You did not write poetry about them.” Then I explain how the different words work, and what they actually mean.
The reason “versed” is wrong is because the words ‘versus’ and ‘verse’ have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Because ‘against’ is a preposition, it simply doesn’t make sense to say “We againsted them”. It is not verbing, by any stretch of the imagination.
The first time we have that conversation, they look at me with confusion. Some have a glazed look of fear, like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. This never fails to entertain me. The second and third times, they roll their eyes.
Over time, the tedium of having the same grammar-nerdy conversation persuades them to start using the language correctly. They learn, I win, and so does the English language.
I’m always a bit lost for words when people remark that history is boring. Not because I have nothing to say— far from it— but because I know they are never going to be anywhere near ready for the conversations I want to have with them.
I accept that in the past, some teachers have been guilty of making history very, very dull, but it was not the history that was boring: it was the teacher.
I’ve had some of my own students question, “Why do we need to learn about this? How am I ever going to use this in real life?” My responses vary depending on the topic at hand, but they are consistently positive and enthusiastic about how interesting and inspiring history can be.
I have recently discovered two new examples to offer to students or friends who complain about history.
A week or so ago, I read a story of a 14th century nun named Joan who faked her own death to get out of the convent she was living in. How’s that for dedication?
Apparently, she wasn’t the only one who wanted to escape either. Having studied medieval history and knowing the lifestyle adhered to by monks and nuns of the time, I can’t say I blame any of them.
Faking your own death is definitely taking it to the next level, though, so I feel that Joan deserves a bit of recognition and applause for her commitment to the performing arts.
I now know more about this amazing creature than my friends will ever think beneficial. You can bet I’m going to tell them all about it, and I know my Year 9 boys are going to love it, too. I almost can’t wait until they complain again, so that I have a good reason to get the story out and share it.
Seriously, take a look at this beast. This picture from a medieval bestiary, or book of animals, portrays this particular bonnacon as being rather pleased with himself and his toxic poop. He’s never going to be sorry.
Go on. Tell me now that history is boring. I dare you.
My cats are big Shakespeare fans; in the case of Rocco, who’s been letting himself go a bit, a huge devotee of the Bard–fifteen pounds at his last checkup. We have assembled on the patio for a reading from Julius Caesar. Titus Andronicus was checked out of our local library, and my wife, the family Shakespeare-hater, is out of town.
“This foul deed shall smell above the earth/with carrion chipmunks, groaning for burial.”
I’ve told them the best way to read Shakespeare is that taught to me by Merlin Bowen, my freshman humanities teacher; once through quickly without checking the footnotes, then the second time more slowly, and thoughtfully, looking up the buskins and petards as you go. Easy for him to say since he didn’t have chemistry and social studies and phys ed and French and drugs to take at the same time.
It is a constant source of amusement to me that barely a day goes by without someone reading a post I wrote over two years ago. As hard as I try to write posts that are interesting and engaging, and have some relevance to either readers or other authors the one post that shows up in my blog stats almost every day is ‘Top Four Shakespeare Podcasts’, posted in June 2017.
While I have had some posts that got a great response at the time, othing else I’ve published on this blog has had that kind of perpetual popularity,
The funny thing is, it’s only got three likes, but more people than that visit that post every day. Perhaps WordPress needs to make the “like” button bigger and brighter so that it’s easier to see and click.
Given that it’s the most successful blog post I’ve ever written, I thought it was worth posting again for all the followers I’ve gained since then. Enjoy.
I love podcasts, and I love Shakespeare. In these four podcasts, you’ll find the best of those two worlds combined.
#1: No Holds Bard. An informative and entertaining podcast by Dan Beaulieu and Kevin Condardo, directors of the Seven Stages Shakespeare Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They discuss the plays, words that people in the 21st century might not know, different interpretations, and various performances of Shakespeare’s plays. They even have a segment where they’ll answer homework questions sent in by students.
#2: Folger Shakespeare Library: Shakespeare Unlimited. A podcast that explores the associations between Shakespeare’s writing and the world today through the words we use, ideas we discuss, and performance of the works of Shakespeare and others.
My friends and I were standing in front of a portrait of Oliver Cromwell at the Tudors to Windsors portrait exhibition at the art gallery in Bendigo. .
As I often do, I added my own commentary. In a posh English accent and lower vocal register, I quipped, “Look at me being all godly and humble and unroyal and stuff before I go and kill a bunch of people and destroy all the monasteries… you know, on God’s behalf.”
A well-dressed elderly gentleman had come to stand beside me. When I finished speaking, he added in a crisp, upper class accent: “Bastard.” He was not wrong.
I am a person who takes others at face value. I don’t immediately classify someone as pretty or ugly, gay or straight, progressive or conservative (unless, either way, they are hateful or prejudiced – then the deal is off) , black or white or some other colour, blonde or brunette, or anything else. I don’t care if they’re plain or fancy, nor do I care if they’re pretty or not. I try to take each person as they are and let their integrity speak louder than their features. I like to get to know them before I make any decisions about them.
When it comes to fonts, however, i am nowhere near as open-minded. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of fonts I like, and many others that I will view with an open mind depending on context and purpose. But there ARE two or three fonts I really hate. I refuse to use them. I have handed back an assignment or two, asking for it to be reprinted in a more acceptable typeface. It’s true: I am Fontist.
I wasn’t raised that way. We didn’t really need to think about fonts back then. When I was growing up, it seemed as thought books were printed in two, maybe three different standard fonts. From memory, there was something like Times New Roman, a basic Sans Serif, and possibly another standard typewriter-style serif font. There was never a question of what typeface to submit our work in, because computers weren’t a thing and our school work was all handwritten. When I started university, assignments and essays had to be typed and double-spaced, so I used my parents’ typewriter. Of course, it only got to the typing stage when one or two hand-written drafts had been painstakingly written, proofread, edited, and revised.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad those days are over. I appreciate the ease of writing using my laptop as much as anyone else, and I’m happy for my students to do some – but not all – of their work on their devices. My underlying Fontism rears its ugly head, though, when someone hands in an assignment or broadcasts a presentation on the screen that screams “ridiculous font” louder than anything the student is trying to communicate. The same thing happens in meetings and seminars where the important information is obscured by the poor choice of font on the screen or handout.
You might think I’m overreacting. But consider this: I might read fifty student assignments in less than a week, or sit through twenty five student presentations in two or three days. When their font suggests I shouldn’t be taking their work seriously, that’s a complication neither they nor I need.
Right at the top of my hate list is Comic Sans. It looks childish, and gets increasingly ridiculous as the size increases, to the point where it is almost impossible for me to take anything printed in that font seriously. It is a font that should never be used for school work of any description by anyone older than six, nor should it be used for slide shows and presentations. Yes, it is “nice and clear for people to read”, but so are about 3000 other fonts one could choose. If your audience is not entirely in the First Grade, choose something else.
Another font I hate is Arial. Yes, it is also nice and clear for people to read. It is also entirely bland and unimaginative. Arial is the font equivalent of still having that original iPhone Marimba ring tone from 2008 on your new iPhoneX when you have 2500 different songs on your playlists. It is the font for lazy people who don’t care how their work looks. It doesn’t take much effort to switch so something equally clear but which looks a lot more polished and professional. In a word: boring.
The other fonts I really dislike fall into two groups: anything over-decorative and wrongly sized formatting.
Over decorative fonts have their place, but trying to read a block of text printed in anything full of swirls and flourishes or trippy lines and shadows will make a teacher’s eyes bleed in less than three minutes. Decorative fonts can work really well for titles, or for a special capital letter or character to start a page or chapter, but they fail miserably for anything that needs to communicate information or arguments clearly and effectively.
In a similar vein, text printed too small or too large is equally frustrating. If it’s too small and condensed, it’s hard to read and… you guessed it, bleeding eyeballs. At the other end of the equation, students may think they can fool me into believing their 337words meets the 500 word minimum word count if their work is formatted in size 15 Helvetica, but my teacher brain knows better. My teacher brain has been doing this a lot longer than they have.
So, I guess this is me coming out of the classroom cupboard and acknowledging the ugliness of the deep-seated prejudice that lies deep within me. It is equally as rampant and undeniable as the grammar nerdism that I make no attempt to hide.
Call me fussy. Call me Fontist. I’m okay with that. But don’t call me to complain if I’ve asked your teen cherub to reprint an assignment so that I can read it without tears. Trust me – it’s better that way, and I’ve tried to be nice about it. Well, I’ve probably been nice..
Unless they are a repeat offender. In that case, there are no guarantees.
Despite the crisis that had unfolded overnight as I slept, I woke this morning to find that the sun had risen, gravity still worked, and the earth continued to turn on its axis.
I had breakfast, got ready for work, and headed into a very busy day. Surprisingly, I found that the work deadlines and professional requirements that were in place yesterday still existed today.
My students, however, were despondent.
Them: Facebook is gone! Instagram doesn’t work! Me: Imagine how much work you might get done in the meantime! Them: You’re not very sympathetic. Me: And that surprises you because…? Them: Rolled eyes and sighs. Some lovely moments of dramatic pathos that I shall try to draw on in drama class.
This left me wondering: what on earth does the world do without Facebook and Instagram? It seems the general response is to complain.
Many of the real social media junkies responded by rushing over to Twitter to complain and commiserate with their followers and the social media world in general.
In all honesty, some of the responses are pretty funny.
Others demonstrate that many people are much worse at dealing with this kind of thing than they should be. I mean, really, Australia? Emergency services? That’s… pathetic.
This one has to be my favourite. It cuts through the whining and combines the sublime and the ridiculous with glorious snark. Jenny Bean Edwards gets an A+ for World Studies.
Cheer up, folks. I’m sure Facebook and Instagram and their enormously profitable algorithms will be back soon.
Until then? You may actually be forced to either read a book or have face-to-face conversations with real people.
Alternatively, you can head to twitter and follow me!