Are Puns The Highest Form of Literature?

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017
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Alfred Hitchcock told Dick Cavett during an interview in 1972 that Puns are the Highest form of Literature. Henri Bergson defined a pun as a sentence or utterance in which "Two different sets of ideas are expressed, and we are confronted with only one series of words".



 If you are writing a script the use of puns can be very gratifying, although it may not be understood in the same and/or intended way by all your audiences given that their usage and meaning are entirely local to a particular language and its culture.The pun is a form of word play which suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect.


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Puns are used to create humor and sometimes require a large vocabulary to understand. Puns have long been used by comedy writers, such as Oscar Wilde, George Carlin and William Shakespeare. It is estimated that Shakespeare used over 3,000 puns in his plays.  For example, in Richard III Shakespeare writes:  "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York" (Son/sun) Puns are a common source of humour in jokes and comedy shows. They are often used in the punch line of a joke, where they typically give a humorous meaning to a rather perplexing story. Puns often are used in the titles of comedic parodies. A parody of a popular song, movie, etc., may be given a title that hints at the title of the work being parodied, substituting some of the words with ones that sound or look similar. Such a title can immediately communicate both that what follows is a parody and also which work is about to be parodied, making any further introduction unnecessary.



Puns can be Classified in Various Ways:


  • The homophonic Pun, a common type, uses word pairs which sound alike but are not synonymous. Walter Redfern exemplified this type with his statement "To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms". For example, in George Carlin's phrase "Atheism is a non-prophet institution", the word "prophet" is put in place of its homophone "profit", altering the common phrase "non-profit institution". Similarly, the joke "Question: Why do we still have troops in Germany? Answer: To keep the Russians in Czech" relies on the aural ambiguity of the homophones "check" and "Czech". Often, puns are not strictly homophonic, but play on words of similar, not identical, sound as in the example from the "Pinky and the Brain" cartoon film series: "I think so, Brain, but if we give peas a chance, won't the lima beans feel left out?" which plays with the similar - but not identical - sound of "peas" and "peace". Rhymes are often used, such as in the example cited below of a wine shop called "Planet of the Grapes." This plays on the rhyme between "grapes" and "apes."




  • A homographic Pun exploits words which are spelled the same (homographs) but possess different meanings and sounds. Because of their nature, they rely on sight more than hearing, contrary to homophonic puns. Examples in which the punned words typically exist in two different parts of speech often rely on unusual sentence construction. An example which combines homophonic and homographic punning is Douglas Adams's line "You can tune a guitar, but you can't tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass." The phrase uses the homophonic qualities of "tune a" and "tuna", as well as the homographic pun on "bass", in which ambiguity is reached through the identical spellings of /ˈbeɪs/ (a string instrument), and /ˈbæs/ (a kind of fish).


  • Homonymic Puns, arise from the exploitation of words which are both homographs and homophones. The statement "Being in politics is just like playing golf: you are trapped in one bad lie after another" puns on the two meanings of the word lie as "a deliberate untruth" and as "the position in which something rests". A homonymic pun may also be polysemic, in which the words must be homonymic and also possess related meanings, a condition which is often subjective.





  • A Compound Pun is a statement that contains two or more puns. For example, a complex statement by Richard Whately includes four puns: "Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But what brought the sandwiches there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred." This pun uses "sand which is there/sandwiches there, "Ham/ham", "mustered/mustard", and "bred/bread". Compound puns may also combine two phrases that share a word. For example, "Where do mathematicians go on weekends? To a Möbius strip club!" puns on Möbius strip and strip club.


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  • A Recursive Pun is one in which the second aspect of a pun relies on the understanding of an element in the first. An example is "Infinity is not infinity," which means infinity is not in finite range, (infinity can be split up as in finity). Another example is "A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother." Finally, we are given "Immanuel doesn't pun, he Kant" by Oscar Wilde.


  • Visual Puns are used in many logos, emblems, insignia, and other graphic symbols, in which one or more of the pun aspects are replaced by a picture.  Another type of visual pun exists in languages which use non-phonetic writing. For example, in Chinese, a pun may be based on a similarity in shape of the written character, despite a complete lack of phonetic similarity in the words punned upon. Mark Elvin describes how this "peculiarly Chinese form of visual punning involved comparing written characters to objects."


Confusion and Alternate Uses:


There exist subtle differences between the use of puns and other literary techniques, such as the double entendre. While puns are often simple wordplay for comedic or rhetorical effect, a double entendre alludes to a second meaning which is not contained within the statement or phrase itself, often one which purposefully disguises the second meaning. As both exploit the use of intentional double meanings, puns can sometimes be double entendres, and vice versa.


Some Interesting Historial Uses of Puns:


  • Puns were found in ancient Egypt, where they were heavily used in development of myths and interpretation of dreams.
  • In China, Shen Tao (ca. 300 BC) used "shih", meaning "power", and "shih", meaning "position" to say that a king has power because of his position as king.
  • In ancient Iraq, about 2500 BC, punning was used by scribes to represent words in cuneiform.
  • The Maya are known for having using puns in their hieroglyphic writing, and for using them in their modern languages.
  • In Japan, "graphomania" was one type of pun.


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