Head to Head: Puns

Illustration by Spike Jordan

Illustration by Spike Jordan

Jake Wirth believes that puns are the lowest form of humor, but Spike Jordan argues that all jokes,  especially puns, can be the key to unlocking secrets as to how the human brain functions.

My girlfriend of a couple years loves river otters. These adorable hand-holding mammals seem to bring out a sense of giddy bewilderment that nothing else can. From time to time, I will show some form of affection towards her with a plush or artistic form of an otter, to which she will undoubtedly reply, “Jake, will you be my significant otter?”

My heart stops and my brain has to try to comprehend the amount of juvenility that went into this statement. My mind blinks to manslaughter. Anything to get out of this situation. I wonder if I want to try dating again, but decide I don’t really have the time in my day to commit to the gym. All of these thoughts race through my head at the simple utterance of a pun.

This little linguistic tic, which many have picked up over the years, is the lowest form of comedy. Puns can grind witty conversation to a halt as everyone has to lower themselves to the mental level of a child to continue talking. Why is it that we believe ourselves smart when we can switch the words otter and other, or describe a banana as appealing? Oh! Har Har! How great and smart you are!

It was Oliver Wendell Holmes that stated in his book “The Autocrat of The Breakfast Table,” “(Punsters) are like wanton boys that put coppers on the railroad tracks… their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for the sake of a battered witticism.” Today when people use this juvenile form of wordplay, many go to it as a guilty pleasure. People say them and the audience responds with a resounding sigh of disappointment. Personally, I enjoy the view of the late William Safire, a writer for the New York Times, when he said that a pun “is to wordplay what dominatrix sex is to foreplay – a stinging whip that elicits groans of guilty pleasure.”

But worry not dear reader! There are many other witty and hilarious forms of comedy to take part in. Say you stub your toe in your dorm room. You can begin yelling and screaming, exclaiming that you see the light at the end of the tunnel. This form of exaggeration can be quite funny for all involved.

But wait! There is more. Say the local youth have picked up some new crazy buzz word that you find ridiculous. It would be funny to mock this word with your friends by adopting it for very comical situations. #YOLO.

It’s time to put away such an immature form of comedy and elevate ourselves to the level of comical geniuses. Using satire, irony, and exaggeration as our weapons, we can come together as an intelligent people and begin our war on puns. With my last few sentences I would like to apologize. By writing this portion of the head to head, I have unleashed the pun beast in Spike Jordan.

Please stay strong and refrain from fits of rage as you read his section.

My opponent seems to underestimate the value of a good pun. Dare I say; he thinks they are Wirth-less? (Queue groans).

Last December, the Chinese government grabbed international headlines. One LA Times news report stated that the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued an edict “restricting puns and irregular wordplay on television and in advertising.”

I’m not well versed in Sino-cultural affairs, but from my understanding, the government wanted to ban puns because they were afraid that puns are an affront to traditional Chinese values.

There are probably international students on campus that could explain the concept in greater detail, but the gist I’ve gathered from reading on the subject is that Chinese language contains a large number of four-character idioms. Changing any one of those characters can create a humorous play-on-words. The idioms, however, are part of a cultural heritage, and the Chinese government feels that they should be spared from being converted into cheap puns.

But what exactly makes a pun, a play-on-words, or any joke for that matter, particularly funny?

There’s a whole field of study in philosophy called “humor theory,” and part of the discipline is based in “incongruity theories.” A joke needs an incongruity, or something that violates the order of the language that we’re used to. It’s essentially the “punch” in a punch line, and we laugh at it because we’ve learned a new order for the language. This also can help explain why a joke that we’ve heard before is no-longer funny, or why puns sometimes solicit groans. That punch line isn’t funny because we already know what’s coming.

For most American children, our first exposure to jokes was through puns printed on candy wrappers or Popsicle sticks. Those jokes seem terrible the older we get, but our nieces, nephews, or younger siblings seem to love telling them. I’d imagine those jokes are still funny to them because they haven’t quite learned the new order of the language.

I know that sounds pretty complicated, but from what I’ve read, a number of universities around the world have developed computer models that seek to map out the logical pathways that are created when we learn the punch line from a joke, and I can only imagine that feeding puns into a computer is a quick and easy way to create those new logical pathways.

There are many exciting things that can be learned from these simulations, especially about how the human brain functions, how we learn, and how we store information. Perhaps China should rethink restricting the use of a valuable language that’s so perfectly prone to puns.

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