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Lockdown 23 – Puns

Next time you have your feet up with a cup of tea, pouring over the newspapers, firstly be more careful with your drink, and secondly take notice of the pun, the most downgraded of literary features. 

I’ve always loved puns, but a couple of days ago I got really jealous of my wife’s finger. It was scrolling down her phone and making her laugh, so I had to know why. I clicked on Facebook and started to scroll. Several days…hours… god knows, later I was a member of The Tim Vine Appreciation Society. Here’s one of my favs.

Puns are the staple diet of the headline writer. In a newspaper last month you have to feel sorry for the pupils in one article when safety experts recommended that ‘school bus passengers should be belted.’ Their situation becomes more serious when we learn that a new bridge on route to school is ‘held up by red tape.’ What about the unlucky passengers who were ‘hit by canceled trains.’ They were, no doubt, chuffed to bits. 

Intentional or not, the pun is alive and well, though definitely not appreciated by all. The reason for this is because it’s silly. Other forms that force together otherwise incompatible juxtapositions of word meanings receive much more serious attention by the critics; but a lot of alliteration and rhyme can’t beat the pun in its prime. Ask yourselves: is being that serious good for you? The answer has got to be – I’m a frayed knot. 

You see that’s what I’m talking about…. what you just did there, and what you’ve been doing all the way through this. That little inner groan, it’s a perfect example of the hard time puns get. Why is this?

It’s all about form over content. Language is used to impart facts and although ‘Iraqi head seeks arms’ is a chilling headline for anyone in the West, it would be even worse if he found his body and legs as well. The pun turns seriousness on its head and the only reason for its existence is for a laugh.

The pun is also the master of compression and allows you to offend two people at once: ‘Keegan is not fit to lace George Best’s drinks.’ What bugs me is that this concise use of language is seen as a virtue in literary circles.

There is some good news though. The pun was not always held in such low regard. Shakespeare was the greatest of punsters. He could make a simple word like ‘union’ stand for a dozen different things from poison through death to, inevitably, ten other subtleties for rumpy-pumpy.

So next time you read a headline in your local newspaper about bicycles in hospitals like ‘Cycle-path in asylum’ written by Juan Smith or another one about a tense courtroom incident, say ‘Convicts evade noose: jury hung’ by Amahl Smith, who is Juan’s twin brother by the way; don’t groan inwardly, don’t tut and definitely don’t go in to complain to both writers. There’s no need, they’re identical twins – if you’ve seen Juan you’ve seen Amahl.

Groan if you like….

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