“Puns are threatening because puns reveal the arbitrariness of meaning, and the layers of nuance that can be packed onto a single word,” says John Pollack, a communications consultant and author of The Pun Also Rises. “So people who dislike puns tend to be people who seek a level of control that doesn’t exist. If you have an approach to the world that is rules-based, driven by hierarchy and threatened by irreverence, then you’re not going to like puns.”
Peter McGraw, the director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has a theory about what makes things funny. He calls it a benign violation—something that subverts or threatens a norm, but not in a way that feels harmful. Puns would fall under the pun-brella of communication violations, though both Pollack and McGraw point out that they’re often more about getting an “Aha!” than a “Haha!”
“They can be a demonstration of wit, of cleverness,” McGraw says. “You’re relying on a person’s ability to parse language, to understand the nuances and complexities of words.”
Perhaps that’s why, according to Pollack, “for most of Western history, puns were a sign of high intellect. They were a tool, and they remain a tool, to pack more meaning into fewer words.” Shakespeare, it is often pointed out, was a merry scribe and punster.
How, then, did puns fall from grace, to become the recipient of groans and moans and McSweeney’s articles all about how terrible they are?
In part, it seems they were bound by the printing press.
“Printing, by its very nature, placed more binding demands on language,” Pollack wrote in his book. “Surely and steadily, it helped transform what had been an oral culture into a written one and forced writers, punsters included, to commit to a single spelling before the type was set.” Then dictionaries like Johnson’s came along and defined the boundaries of words further.
Then Twitter came along and now a punster can hardly get one out before people start telling him to delete his account, or trying to shame the punster by just tweeting the person’s first name with a period. (In these examples from a couple of my punny colleagues, you will also see people booing, threatening to throw their phones into traffic, or just saying “No.”)
“A pun is rarely funny,” wrote Charlie Hopper, the author of the McSweeney’s article. “Sometimes it forces you to laugh grimly along with it, but that’s not humor. That’s force of personality.”
Pollack also points out that trends in humor come and go, and puns aren’t necessarily in vogue right now.
“I think another question to ask that’s just as relevant is why is sarcasm considered cool by the same people who often decry puns as uncool?” he asks. “Both are a way of saying one thing and meaning another. In an age of cynicism it’s safer, socially, to tear something down through sarcasm or irony than it is to build something up through punning.”