By: John Pollack
Publisher: Gotham Books
Publication Date: April 2011
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger
Review date: September 8, 2011
D’you get both of the puns in the title of this book? How about this: “The Risible Fall of Puns Through Time” (the subtitle of Chapter 3). Some people don’t get puns and hate them. Some people get them and still hate them. But a lot of people get them, love them, and use them. These people include the classical Greek authors, Shakespeare, and modern advertisers and headline writers.
Here’s a book that anyone who loves language will want to read. Contrary to the dicta of Addison and Steele, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Shawn, long-time editor of The New Yorker, and even Humpty Dumpty, we cannot dictate to our brains how words are processed. Humans invented syntax, Pollack explains, and syntax includes playing with words. He writes that the pun was in fact, “humanity’s first hyperlink, a way to identify and articulate potential connections that aren’t necessarily or immediately apparent. Punning was and remains a way to sling a verbal rope, in an instant, across vast conceptual canyons. It is this same urge to imagine, explore and establish new connections that fuels creativity generally, and science specifically...Puns reveal a mind free to roam frontiers of possibility, without shame or fear of being wrong.” (pg. 143) This is because, as Pollack carefully explains in Chapter 2, the brain uses many of its parts to identify sound and translate between symbols and words. In other words, it takes a powerful brain to make or appreciate a pun. It’s the small-minded guys who don’t get puns.
The Pun Also Rises is enormous fun to read. The introduction is an account of a punning competition near Austin, Texas, that Pollack won. He says he’s been punning all his life. He’s not alone. Puns appear in nearly all the earth’s complex languages, from Egyptian, Sumerian, Phoenician, Chinese, and Greek to French and English (and lots in between). Chapter 1 gives examples of kinds of puns—Spoonerisms, knock-knock jokes, Tom Swifties, etc.—and tries to arrive at a definition, something even the OED cannot do satisfactorily. Chapter 2 tells us how the brain works when it’s sighting or creating puns. Chapter 3 gives a history of punning from the earliest times until today’s standup comics. Chapter 4 traces the history of punning from babbling on in Babylon to vaudeville to the double-entendres we spot in ads and company names. Chapter 5 brings the subject up to date. Pollack concludes that “puns keep our minds alert, engaged and nimble in this quickening world, revealing new connections and fresh interpretations.” (pg. 152)
Quill says: Punsters rejoice! Punning proves we have nimbler brains than those other guys.