The pedagogy and beauty of puns
By Wes Wright
This essay is adapted from a lecture Mr. Wright delivered to the Fairfield Society on September 18.
How you have felt, O Hillsdale students, at hearing my puns, I can tell: you scoff at them, groan, and call them the lowest form of humor. I hope to defend puns against this charge and improve your opinion of them, but first I must define my terms.
Most people think a pun is “a play on words”, but there are lots of ways to play on words, like rhyming, alliteration, and tmesis. I would suggest, then, that wordplay is a genus and that punning is a species of that genus. I’ll add another term here: ‘paronomasia’ is the Greek word used in the rhetorical tradition to refer to puns. ‘Paro’ gives us ‘beside,’ with a sense of alteration, and ‘nomasia’ is ‘naming’ or ‘names’. I will interpret ‘nomasia’ as ‘signs’ for the purposes of this article because signs, or words, are the names we have for ideas. Paronomasia, then, is a form of wordplay that uses similar-sounding or similarly-shaped signs to suggest multiple meanings.
Let’s unpack that definition. As puns are a species of wordplay, there are, in turn, species of puns based on the sort of sign-alteration in question.
Most common is the homophonic pun, which plays with the meanings of two words that are spelled differently but sound alike. There’s a good example in Book 7 of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Aeneid:
…Then came another sign:
While the old king lit fires at the altars
With a pure torch, the girl Lavinia with him,
It seemed her long hair caught, her headdress caught
In crackling flame, her queenly tresses blazed,
Her jeweled crown blazed. Mantled then in smoke
And russet light, she scattered divine fire
Through all the house. No one could hold that sign
Anything but hair-raising, marvelous…
Fitzgerald puns on ‘raising’ and ‘razing’ to suggest both the lifted hair of someone frightened and something burning to the ground. Again, the words sound alike but are spelled differently.
The next variety of pun is the homographic pun, which uses words spelled similarly but sounded differently. Here’s one from Milton’s Paradise Regain’d, Book 2:
…there he slept,
And dream’d, as appetite is wont to dream,
Of meats and drinks, Natures refreshment sweet;
Him thought, he by the Brook of Cherith stood
And saw the Ravens with their horny beaks
Food to Elijah bringing Even and Morn,
Though ravenous, taught to abstain from what they brought…
Milton plays with ‘Ravens’ and ‘ravenous’ to make hunger central to the birds’ very nature and their abstinence all the more powerful. Homographic punning also extends to the shapes of words and letters. For example, archeologists have discovered an Egyptian hieroglyphic prayer to Sobek—the Egyptian crocodile-headed god of the Nile—in which all of the glyphs have been made into little crocodiles. The punning adds the significance of the prayer to Sobek into every ‘letter’ of the prayer.
The homonymic pun is the final variety I will discuss. It has a perfection the other sorts lack, for it uses words that are both spelled and sounded the same. There’s a classic example in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, describing Sir Lancelot:
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shallott.
Tennyson puns with ‘field’ here, for Lancelot and his shield are indeed standing in the fields of wheat surrounding Shallot, while the image of a lady sparkles on the heraldic yellow of his shield.
So, now that we have a better understanding of what puns are, I can begin my defense of their use. First, the reason that puns are not very funny is that they are rarely supposed to be. They can be used for comedic effect (like the classic Groucho Marx line, “Marriage is a fine institution, but who wants to live in an institution?”), but most often they are a tool. Paronomasia is, after all, a rhetorical device.
Its use as a device goes back at least as far as Heraclitus. Remember, the Heraclitean project was to point his readers to the Logos, the notion that one:everything and everything:one. Puns are the perfect device for the Heraclitean project because they can create paradoxes of meaning with which readers must grapple. When they understand the paradox to be truth, they better appreciate the order of the universe, the everythingness of one. The word ‘logos’ as we use it does exactly that: it means simultaneously ‘word’, ‘reason’ (and thus ‘order’) ‘language’, and ‘thought’, and some understanding of divinity. For Heraclitus, puns assert the underlying unity of the universe, even when they appear to form contradictions.
Now I’ll turn to Owen Barfield, a lesser-known Inkling. He writes in Poetic Diction that “Language is the storehouse of the imagination.” This statement seems like a truism, but Mr. Barfield uses Coleridge’s understanding of ‘imagination,’ divided into the primary and secondary imagination. Consider the world as rampant sense-data: a great muddle of stuff that we perceive as merely stuff. The primary imagination recognizes patterns, similarities, and defining characteristics; it simply apprehends order in the kaleidoscopic barrage of data surrounding us. Barfield writes that the primary imagination “construct[s] . . . the ordinary physical world which we speak of ‘perceiving’, though in fact we half perceive (that is, receive through sense-impressions) and half create it.” This understanding leads Barfield to the bold assertion that “[Scientism] insists on dealing with ‘data’, but there shall no data be given, save the bare percept. The rest is imagination. Only by imagination therefore can the world be known.”
The secondary imagination is the same act on a different scale. Barfield quotes a Mr. James as writing that “The highest reaches of the imagination are of a piece with the simplest act of perception, and issue from the demand for unity which is the life of the imagination.” The secondary imagination is that which we think of poets using. The best poets simply apprehend the unity of things, their imagination finding the sameness between ideas. Here’s a few lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
She loves this man so much that it is obvious to others, as if she were wearing a great jewel, a great ruby that blushes as she does. The secondary imagination recognizes the unity of these ideas just as the primary imagination recognizes the unity between the sense-patterns of a tree and the mind’s understanding of the common sense-patterns of a tree. The secondary imagination is what allows the poet to show unity in the form of metaphor.
Metaphor is important because it allows us to express poetic truth. Poetic truth sounds shady, but it is really quite helpful. It arises from the Aristotelian emphasis on the intelligible and the intelligible-to-us. Man cannot know everything absolutely, but there are things that we can know in different ways. Logic deals with demonstrated knowledge that we know to be true absolutely: “Socrates is a social, rational, story-telling animal.” Rhetoric deals with the probable: “If Socrates does not defend the project of philosophy in his Apology, the jury will acquit him.” Poetry deals with things beyond that, things beyond the ken of man. Poetic truth is truth one senses but cannot express directly, and thus one uses metaphor (among other devices) to move the reader towards understanding that truth. Browning’s love is not literally a ruby, but great love for someone can show itself in the same way a great crowning ruby might. Poetic truth is often used to aid one’s understanding of the highest things. At the end of the Paradiso, Dante is awed by the sheer, inexpressible majesty of God. Although God is inexpressible, we can understand and explain slight aspects of His nature through poetry, through poetic truth. Why did Christ speak in parables? Faith cannot literally be the size of a mustard seed and Christ is not literally the Lamb of God, but each of these metaphors point to some aspect of God and help us understand him.
Puns, I suggest, are the briefest instances of metaphor and the most compact pieces of poetic truth. For puns assert the unity of things: ravens really do hunger, and it really is frightening to see something razed. Now, one might respond that most puns are not written by poets or philosophers; most puns are just goofy play with words. But remember that the imagination is a faculty of the intellect, and as a faculty it can be trained. Punning forces one to pay attention to the world and observe unity. Eventually it becomes natural, and one can “turn it on” and seek out puns, seek out unity in the world around us. Traditionally, man has been understood as bridging the gap between the corporeal and the intellectual: animals and rocks are corporeal, angels are beings of pure intellect, and God is the Logos. So by training our imagination and thus our intellect, we become more godlike in a very literal sense, and more adept at seeing the unity of things, that one:everything. Is not all God everywhere? Every given thing has all God in it. If by punning we assert one:everything and everything:one then by punning we assert God’s existence.
Yet there is still one unresolved problem. If most puns are not funny, why do I laugh at them? Let’s briefly consider the Scholastic understanding of habitus, as explained by Jacques Maritain: habitus are “qualities which are essentially stable dispositions perfecting in the line of its own nature the subject in which they exist. Health, beauty are habitus of the body; sanctifying grace is a habitus…of the soul. Other habitus have for their subject the faculties or powers of the soul…such are the intellectual virtues and the moral virtues.” Now, others recognize these perfections and respond to them in many ways. I’ll suggest that the primary response is joy: in seeing someone who is well, or who is beautiful, or who is Christlike, one’s soul soars. One enjoys, one delights, in these perfections. As the imagination is a faculty of the soul, of the intellect, there must be a habitus of the imagination, and seeing someone excellently pun is to see a perfection of that habitus. St. Anselm concludes in the Proslogion that God is all and overwhelming joy. Because puns assert God’s existence, bring us to truth, make us more godlike, and leaven our lives with joy, they move us toward God in a way few common things do.
Editor-at-Large Wes Wright is a senior studying political economy and speech with a minor in classical education.