The pun patrol

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In the time leading up to April Fool's Day, the New York Times published a piece on puns ("Pun for the Ages" by Joseph Tartakovsky, 28 March, p. A17) and then a set of letters responding to it (under the heading "A Pod of Puns: Stop Me if You Herd Them", 3 March, p. A26).

Tartakovsky's column is mostly fluff, passing on a couple of centuries' dismissal of puns as the lowest form of humor. But he* [*just to note that  this is a pronoun with a possessive antecedent, something a few confused souls think is ungrammatical] does offer a reason for this judgment:

Puns are the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to restore the semantic confusion.

But this is wrong in both directions at once.

Pratfalls, many sight gags, comic mugging (think Jerry Lewis), and more are all ephemeral. In the other direction, puns can be extended and complex.

[Note: discussions of puns in popular media regularly extend the notion of pun to cover not only "perfect puns", in which the two lexical items involved are phonologically identical (herd/heard above), but also the very common "imperfect puns", where the items are phonologically similar but not identical (Tartakovsky quotes his own "not get curried away", with its curried/carried play), transpositions of various sorts ("Work is the curse of the drinking class", "We'll never know for whom the Tells bowled"), and more.]

The point is that word play can be extended and complex, as in the stories that lead up to the paranomasiac

transporting gulls across staid lions for immortal porpoises

or the Spooneristic punch line

boy-foot bear with teak of Chan.

These require long set-ups — as do many sight gags and stories of humorous misunderstandings and the like.

The crucial distinction here seems to be between humor that has to do mostly with situation and character and humor that springs mostly from language alone. The latter is deprecated as low and untrustworthy — "just words". Looks to me like a put-down of "just words".

Note: I am not saying that linguistic humor cannot be ephemeral or trivial. Of course: a lot of it is. But so is a lot of other humor. (And what's wrong with that?)

In any case, the complaint seems to be about "jokes", rather than humor in general. Jim Holt, in Stop Me If You've Heard This (p. 7), puts it this way: "A joke, unlike a tale, wants to be brief."

More important than brevity, I think, is the difference in the point of non-linguistic and linguistic humor. Non-linguistic humor turns primarily on character and situation and tends to embody a "moral story", conveying beliefs about what people should be like and how they should act — if only to put down certain classes of people or people who act in certain ways. (Another vein of non-linguistic humor turns on the vagaries of chance.)

Linguistic humor can do this, but it often doesn't. Instead, it's "just" play with language. Typically, it will have the surprise value of non-linguistic humor, but a moral story doesn't usually figure into it.

Some of the commenters on Tartakovsky's piece noted, in effect, that non-linguistic humor is often aggressive, cruel, or mocking, while purely linguistic humor mostly lacks such import. These commenters — reasonably enough, to my mind — celebrate the pleasurable playfulness of linguistic humor, in contrast.

Meanwhile, do you know where I can get scrod in Boston?

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