A Serious Post About Puns—No really

Years ago, a close friend remarked, “I don’t like puns.”

I was stunned.  Not that there could be someone who doesn’t like puns, but that such a person could be a close friend. I mean, I’m me. Like pretty much everyone who loves language, I can’t help but be aware of the acoustic properties of words.  And this will inevitably cause connections in my head between words, which will of course lead to connections between the ideas those words carry with them, and sometimes that connection will take the form of a line of a song (or, god help you all, a poem), or a nice sentence, but very often it will take the form of a pun.  This word sounds like that word, and here is how their subject matter can connect.  What I mean is, on a certain level, I cannot help but be aware of word play, and when one comes to mind that passes my not-terribly-high standards of humor, I’m inclined to let it out.  Therefore, I was amazed that someone could actually like me but not like puns.

Then she went on, and the proverbial light bulb went on in my head.

“It’s just that sometimes I have conversations with people and it seems like they aren’t interested in what I’m saying, they’re just waiting for the next opportunity to make a pun.”

Oh.  Ouch.  Yeah.

How can I argue?  I’ve not only done it, but I realized, as she spoke, that I’d been irritated by the same thing.

This does not, in my opinion, mean, “stop making puns,” it means, “be aware of the context.”  If someone is talking about something that matters to him or her, that is actually important and meaningful, or even a subject that person is interested in and believes you are too, turning it into an opportunity for humor can be rude, disrespectful, hurtful. Of course, it isn’t easy, because sometimes it can be exactly perfect in the sense of breaking the tension in an agreeable way.  That’s the thing about interactions with us monkeys: nothing is simple, nothing is easy.

But, anyway, this is something for those of us whose minds work that way to think about.

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10 thoughts on “A Serious Post About Puns—No really”

  1. Like so many people interested in science fiction/fantasy/etc., I too live for the pun. And yes, I have to restrain myself sometimes.

    It’s all about how you’re presenting yourself as a listener. Someone will share something, and out will come the pun; the focus upon the form in which the speaker presents their thoughts. What this can signal (rightly or wrongly) is “I don’t care about the content or the context, only the form”, which can then be interpreted as not finding the content important enough to interact with. And it’s the content which the original speaker is offering in the hope that we will find it valuable. In more extreme cases it comes across as “what you said is less important than my clever response because it’s all about me”. And yeah, I’ve hurt folks like this. I also know that when people do that to -me-, it’s not always a good experience. Nobody likes being talked down to like that.

    This also explains why when two punsters encounter each other and recognize each other for what they are (villains!) they will be off and running. We count our successes in groans; we groom our shaggy dog stories; we gleefully fence with what we suppose to be rapier wit. This is the literary equivalent of locker-room hazing, The Dozens fought with mental thesaurus at ten paces. Like all such subculture rituals it ain’t pretty from the outside. “Are those two going to kill each other, or what?”

    Social context matters, and those of us who fancy ourselves to be wordsmiths need to be aware of that context. We may think ourselves the most eloquent humorists in the room, but to the rest of the world we’re just nerds engaging in vocabulary-fueled wanking. Or, at least, that’s what -I- am doing.

    Such cunning linguists truly deserve a licking.

  2. Puns are fine, correction GOOD puns are fine. Just so long as they do not disregard what the other person has or was saying. Then it becomes a matter of timing and proper respect and discretion.

    Hence the reason for so many bad puns…

  3. Aww….I have relived this conversation in my head over and over. I’ve decided that I DO like puns, I just dont like what they do to the flow of conversation….on my part. But now I’m older and wiser and I’ve come to realize the conversation is more interesting because YOU, and your puns, are in it. I miss you!

  4. I hate puns in conversation. I’ve punched people in the shoulder hard enough to make them stumble for puns.

    I’m OK with puns in writing, I’ve read pretty much all you have written, and I can’t remember being upset about a pun. I definitely remember a few puns I’ve really liked.

    I love puns in username, forum handles, etc. Especially bilingual ones… except that when you actually meet people face to face, and they address you by your ‘punny’ username in front of someone who speaks both languages, you start looking for a hole in the ground.

  5. “A punster follows a conversation as a shark follows a lifeboat.”

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