The power of the pun

Friday, Dec 14, 2018, 12:12 AM | Source: Pursuit

John Hajek, David McInnis

Depending on your sense of humour, puns are either the height of witty wordplay or cringe-worthy ‘Dad jokes’.

Despite their divisive nature they have quite the staying power, with the Roman statesman Cicero including wordplay on his list of types of Roman jokes.

Puns are part of a playfulness in language when we interact. Picture: Getty Images

So, why does the humble pun have such longevity?

“People like playing with language,” says Professor John Hajek, Professor of Italian Studies and linguist in the University of Melbourne’s School of Languages and Linguistics.

“It’s a feature of human interaction with language, from puns to nursery rhymes. We have a long tradition of play.”

Shakespearean lecturer Dr David McInnis says it’s also about creating a ‘club’ with words.

“I think there’s a sense of shared cleverness and intelligence that you get the joke. Some people understand it and some don’t, so there’s that element of sharing something that’s a bit of a secret in some ways.”

Their frequent groan-worthiness only adds to the appeal.

“A lot of puns are really terrible,” Dr McInnis says.

“It’s a bit like the jokes you get in Christmas crackers that are notoriously bad, and part of that is a communal bonding thing, you know. You hear a really bad joke, everyone collectively groans … it’s a bonding exercise.”


Shakespeare’s plays are littered with wordplay. He regularly used puns as a source for humour, to reveal themes and aspects of the plot, and to bond an audience in shared recognition.

Puns are only successful if you “assume that people will work it out”. Picture: Getty Images

“Part of the joy of going to Shakespeare’s plays is that he just runs riot with language,” Dr McInnis says.

A classic example is the apparently simple title Much Ado About Nothing, which is actually a triple pun.

“It can mean literally ‘nothing’, in a Seinfeld-esque ‘play about nothing’ kind of way,” says Dr McInnis. “But ‘nothing’ can also be pronounced with an Elizabethan accent such that it means ‘noting’. There’s a lot of observation going on in that play, and you already have a clue that the voyeuristic aspect is important.

“And the third meaning is a bawdy meaning, which is ‘naughting’. So, think about the figure zero, or naught, representing female genitals, and the idea of sex takes place a lot in this play.”

It’s a play about sex, it’s a play about observing, and it’s also a light-hearted romp about nothing in particular, says Dr McInnis.

It’s all there in the title, which seems trivial but is “actually deeply significant”.


Shakespeare also knew that puns didn’t necessarily have to have humour as their primary function. Wordplay can sometimes “allow for some really dark meanings,” Dr McInnis says.

“There can be a deeper truth being conveyed that’s missed entirely because a character has their blinkers on.”

Puns seem to be particularly characteristic of languages like English. Picture: Getty Images

Dr McInnis uses the opening of King Lear as an example. The old king asks his three daughters to tell him how much they love him, but in Shakespeare’s period, the word ‘love’ had two distinct meanings.

“One of them is the one we associate it with – ‘to feel affection for’. But the other meaning of love, with a completely different etymology, means ‘to esteem the value of’.

“And so the older two sisters, the Cinderella step-sister type characters, are very cynical and mercantile, and they’re talking about how much they would give their Father, or value him.

“Whereas the youngest daughter, who actually loves him, speaks about love in the way that we use it. So the audience, who are clued into that difference – and it’s quite a dark pun there – immediately notices that the two older sisters are the evil step-sister types, and the younger one has a very different sense of what actually love means.”


This raises a problem for contemporary audiences.

As Professor Hajek notes, puns are only successful if you “assume that people will work it out”.

That can be difficult when a pun relies on us understanding a historical meaning or accent that no longer really exists. Hence, Dr McInnis says, the importance of good acting.

A lot of puns are terrible, but we bond by groaning about them together. Picture: Getty Images

“It’s difficult. A good actor who understands what’s at stake in the language play is usually able to convey and embody that through gesture and through, having internalised it, making sense of it for an audience.”


Nowadays, puns “seem to be particularly characteristic of languages like English,” says Professor Hajek.

Indeed, the word pun has no direct equivalence in languages like Italian or French.

“You have to say ‘a play of words’ or ‘a game of words’.”

There are a few reasons for this, one is that English grammar is less complex than other languages, which according to Professor Hajek means “you don’t have to worry so much about the endings of words.”

It’s also full of homonyms – words that are completely unrelated but happen to have the same sound.

“This is a result of all the vocabulary we have inherited from Germanic, and all the vocabulary we’ve borrowed from French and Latin, which means it’s a lot easier to find words that sound the same, but whose meaning is different,” he says.

“They’re a lot more uncommon in a language like Italian. Although, there is a classic pun in Italian, and it’s ridiculous. It’s ‘un uomo entra in un caffè. Plop.’

“So, literally, that’s ‘A man walks into a cafe. Plop.’ But, this is a rare example of wordplay in the language where ‘café’ is also ‘coffee’. Hence, the plop sound at the end.”

Puns also let us show off our how clever we are. Picture: Getty Images

The sentence also reveals the elegant simplicity of a good pun, its final sound retrospectively announcing that what you’ve just heard is a joke.

They’ve been around for a while, and it seems likely that we’ll be stuck with puns for a while longer. But on top of everything else, they’re interlinked with a very human desire: they let us show off.

“My sense is that, especially in literary circles, it’s a demonstration of skill, basically,” Dr McInnis says.

“It’s one of those virtuoso talents of a dramatist or poet. There’s always been a vested interest in trying to show how clever you can be in finding a good pun.”

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