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.