Review: ‘Upon the pun’

by Patrick Hughes and Paul Hammond (London, W.H. Allen, non-paginated, illustrations. £4.95)


W. D. Redfern


The authors quote Anon, Jr. (Anon. is obviously an anagram of Onan, who was also secretive): ‘The fact that people and trees and elephants and cars all have trunks just proves that there are more things than there are words.’ And consequently, language is always doubling up: hence puns. The sections of this very fine book are mostly brief, just as the pun itself is a device of economy. Punning appeals to those who expect their money’s worth, and indeed bonuses, from language. And to those capable of a quick enough double-take. ‘Come again,’ as the actress said to the bishop.


Classically, the authors start off with definitions. The pun, for them, entails homophones (i.e. two different words sounding the same), whereas a play on words or double meaning is made on a homonym (i.e. one word with two or more meanings). The term double entendre they reserve for a lewd play on words. Their distinguos might be more useful to readers more enamoured of classification than I am. I suspect that they wished to give their extensive and fruitful research in this much maligned area of rhetoric some kind of academic respectability. They might have remembered Molly Mahood’s salutary warning in her study of Shakespeare’s wordplay: ‘Naming the parts does not show us what makes a gun go off.’ The authors betray a slight preference for what they call the ‘arbitrary’ pun over the ‘erudite’ play on words. Their heritage leans towards Surrealism, and so they take little account of the pointedness of some puns (the Italian punto is the best guess by etymologists as to derivation). For them, I sense that pointed puns would be overly rational. (Let me slip this one in, as the actor said to the bishop. My own favourite concerns the doctor M.P. who, bewailing the faecal beaches of Britain in the House, said: ‘You can no longer actually swim off our coasts; all you can do is go through the motions’).


Charitably, the authors are hopeful about our ‘intuitive erudition . . . which makes every man an etymologist.’ But all of us have frequently failed to see the references made in a joke or to twig a pun, and have had to have them laboriously explained to us. In another section, they in fact admit the limits of most people’s etymological expertise and, therefore implicitly, the dangers of being too pedantic about definitions of humour (as, for instance, in their own rather tangled explication of the ‘untangled pun’).


Some dimensions are surprisingly missing: music-hall comedians, gallows humour, Shakespeare and the Metaphysical poets, James Joyce, advertising slogans (e.g. the excellent Durex advert exploiting their sponsorship of racing-cars, which features one such with the motto: ‘The Small Family Car’), and translingual puns (‘Ubi benny, ibi patria,’ as the drug-addict said).


The authors do nevertheless add a great deal to the study of the pun-family: the ‘assonant pun’ (‘There’s a vas differens between children and no children’ - this is a good example, but obviously such approximate puns can be far-fetched, dragged in by the hair). The ‘meld pun’ (or portmanteau word): ‘Old people are inclined to fall into anecdotage.’ The chiasmus and the metathesis, the contrepèterie and the Spoonerism (like the apocryphal one when Spooner spotted an undergraduate embracing a girl on the Isis: ‘Young man, cunts are not for pissing in’), and their visual counterpart, the droodle. Finally, in a bin-end section, they include: malapropisms, howlers, holorhymes or charades, conundrums and riddles, zeugma, and children’s punning, especially on names (as in Dorothy Parker’s splendid ‘Verlaine was always chasing Rimbaud’s’).


In general, though their study of verbal punning should certainly make us listen more acutely to what we and others say, their sections on pictorial puns really open our eyes. They rightly equate visual puns with metaphors, in that both coalesce tellingly things normally kept distinct. Their running attempt to link verbal and iconographic punning (they call Salvador Dali the Thomas Hood of fine art) is a kind of wordplay itself. For example, they talk frequently of a ‘continuum’ between canvas and printed page, by which I take it that they mean overlap, approximation, hit-or-miss. Undoubtedly, we are slower on the uptake with images; hence the need for captions to most cartoons. Their illustrations of puns in the visual arts embrace the whole gamut from seaside postcards to Arcimboldo and Dürer (‘the Men’s Bath,’ where a nude male stands suggestively in close conjunction to a tap). The longest section in the book (‘Visual Puns on the Face, Breasts, Posterior and Penis’) is naturally fascinating (e.g. Magritte’s ladylike hand grasping a factory chimney).


Before the excellent critical bibliography, the authors rapidly quarrel with previous definitions and theories of wordplay, in the O.E.D., the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Freud. They never really ask, ‘Why do puns exist?,’ perhaps because they posit them as being every bit as natural as sexual drives. I feel that they have ignored the advice they quote from Swift about the need to ‘distinguish Puns into Good and Bad.’ Indeed, the nearest they get to value-judgments is to use the word ‘bathos.’ (Bad puns tell us what makes a good pun. I am thinking of that Jubilee Year advert by Guinness: ‘We’ve poured throughout her reign.’ This is strictly meaningless and certainly pointless, as no other liquid falls in company with rain). In general, the authors are better, because less nit-picking about definitions, more slap-happy and freewheeling in their interpretations, on visual than on verbal puns. And fresher too, for as they correctly claim, this territory is wellnigh uncharted. Perhaps an anthology of good puns (and the ones quoted on every page of this book are often excellent) would instruct us more successfully than any taxonomy ever could, for it would be proof in action. To be fair, the authors constantly enlarge their categories, widen their polarities chiasmus-wise, and end up proclaiming, like Pataphysicians, that the opposite is also true. There is, probably, a deadpan parody of pedantry operating throughout. Patrick Hughes has previously published an excellent study of logical paradoxes, and Paul Hammond has written on film, Surrealism and mucky postcards. Their joint book is a medley of the clerkly and the earthy, the cathedra and the catheter (which can of course take the piss out of the lot of us).


The truest compliment to pay this delectable and provocative book is to wish that, as the actress said to the bishop, it had been a lot longer. With that, as Groucho Marx said, placing his valise on the table, I rest my case. Except to add (Cf. Beckett saying his work was a matter of fundamental sounds): scatology and eschatology are identical, since both are concerned with the final issue of things. The sparing pun in fact spares nobody and nothing.