Why Do Puns Make People Groan?

The once-exalted form of wordplay takes a lot of heat these days.

Someone has a lot of ... thyme on his hands. (Eckehard Schulz / AP)

Sometimes in life, I’m just trying to have a little fun with some wordplay, and the people around me aren’t having it. They’d rather have no pun at all.

Wait, wait, no, come back! Don’t close that tab!

I imagine a good portion of readers saw that and are now groaning, cursing me, or just not reading this article anymore. When it comes to puns, it often seems like people are either lovers or haters—they can take them or leave them, make them or grieve them.

The pun-haters are in storied company. They can count among their ranks Samuel Johnson, author of the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language—not the first English dictionary, but one of the most influential before the Oxford English Dictionary came along. It took him nine years to nail 42,000 slippery definitions to the page, so it’s understandable that he might take it a bit personally when people messed with the rules he took so long to create.

“To trifle with the vocabulary which is the vehicle of social intercourse is to tamper with the currency of human intelligence,” Johnson once wrote. “He who would violate the sanctities of his Mother Tongue would invade the recesses of the paternal till without remorse.”

But the plight of any dictionary-writer is the inherent fluidity of language, which is the pun-trepreneur’s delight.

“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.”

Still, if the pun rose as the best, it has yet to set as the least. Puns are still popular in ad campaigns and marketing (Ben and Jerry’s being a notable example), and used in TV and movie titles, like Grey’s Anatomy or Transparent. The cartoon Bob’s Burgers has a title sequence built entirely around puns that change every episode.

“I would say that while there are critics of the pun that are vocal, they don’t necessarily represent a majority,” Pollack says.

The form is still beloved enough that some pun competitively. Jo Firestone, a consulting producer for The Chris Gethard Show, is also a pun-sulting producer for the Punderdome, a monthly pun competition in Brooklyn, hosted by her father, Fred. They've been going solid since 2011, but Firestone hasn't tired of puns yet. “I've sat through at least 150 hours of puns,” she says. “And I do still like them.”

In the comedy world, she says, puns aren't exactly controversial, but she can see why some people find them annoying. “Most performative comedy, there is a message behind it, so there’s a reason to say it, it speaks a truth about life, there’s something you connect with emotionally,” she says. “Whereas puns are totally useless when it comes to that. It’s a totally frivolous unnecessary thing to say most of the time. It usually is just to derail the conversation or to add wordplay when wordplay doesn’t belong there, it’s kind of like the annoying younger brother or sister of the comedy world.”

Hopper agrees, writing, “They’re usually deployed by people who know you’ll think the pun is annoying. Which is annoying. … A pun sidetracks you. It’s your friend who won’t let you get anything done.”

Of course, all kinds of humor can backfire with the wrong audience. “Anytime someone’s trying to be funny, there’s a group of people who don’t think they’re funny,” McGraw says.

And they’ll let you know it. In a study on “failed humor,” the responses of people who heard a bad joke (not a pun, sadly) indicated both that they understood it was supposed to be a joke, and that they did not find it funny. They would make “metalinguistic comments” about the joke, assess its quality, or just say something noncommittal like, “Okay.” Surprisingly, there weren’t actually that many groans.

“With humor as such an important identifier of group and individual identities, it is not surprising to see that participants would want to communicate their distaste for the joke,” the study reads. “Doing so presents their sense of humor and also discourages the joke-teller from using this type of humor in the future.”

So the pun-blic humiliation you see on Twitter allows the haters to set themselves apart from punsters, and signal their (allegedly) superior sense of humor. If a successful pun gets an “I see what you did there,” an unsuccessful pun gets an “I see what you did there—and it was bad.”

But if puns are the annoying little siblings of comedy, then like a baby brother who won’t stop asking “Why?” after everything you say, a punster is probably often just looking for a reaction, be it “Aha!,” “Haha!” or “No.”

“At least people get it, right?” McGraw asks. “If you’re on Twitter, which of the two is the worse state: To tweet something and have no one react, or to tweet something and have people groan-tweet you?”

That’s a bonus for Punderdome performers, too, Firestone says. “With a pun, you can’t really fail as you perform it, because either way you’re going to get a reaction. Whether it’s a groan or whether it’s laughter, people acknowledge what you said.”

Unlike a lot of other kinds of jokes, the groans and the outrage—mock or not—are part and parcel of pun performance. The reactions are the pun-der (help) that comes after the lightning of the joke itself. They're part of the whole pun experience. Punners gonna pun and pun-shunners gonna shun.

But Pollack thinks the haters are defining the term “pun” too narrowly. “Puns don’t have to be spoken,” he says. “There are also visual puns.” Google’s changing logo, the letters replaced with doodles for special occasions, is one example of a visual pun. Pollack brings up Pablo Picasso’s sculpture “Bull’s Head,” which is made from a bicycle seat and handles.

“Does anyone think that’s a bad joke?” Pollack asks. “No. He’s giving new meaning to something familiar. Why is that high art and the other low? It’s not, it’s just applied value. People might just dislike stupid dumb puns. I dislike stupid dumb puns. And I love puns.”