THE PUN ALSO RISES
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1995, John Pollack, a speechwriter for Bill Clinton, found himself competing in the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship. In his first punning competition, nobody expected Pollack to do particularly well, especially himself, but he wound up walking away with the, somewhat less than dignified, trophy. His surprise victory led him to explore the history of the pun, not just in terms of English, but in other languages, as well as the changing social attitude towards this once respected form of wordplay, now fallen on hard times.
Pollack traces the earliest known puns back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and provides the translation needed to allow the reader to understand the pun. This highlights one of the issues with exploring puns in different languages, but Pollack manages to do a good job in explaining the pun in the original language whenever he comes across a multi-lingual pun. From ancient Sumer, Pollack works his way through other cultures and provides evidence that the pun was not always viewed as the "lowest form of humor," but in fact was often used for teaching and making people think.
When discussing the frequent appearance of puns in Shakespeare, Pollack notes that by including puns in his dialogue, he encouraged the attendees to listen more closely to what was being said. Puns, therefore, were used not just for the efficacy of their humor, but also as a means of highlighting areas of the text the playwright (or other speakers or writers) found to be important.
And although puns are generally seen as humorous in today's society, Pollack makes it clear that puns are primarily wordplay, although they can also be seen in pictograms such as rebuses. Puns can be serious in nature, simply playing on the human mind's tendency to make links between two items which are linked together linguistically or otherwise, to make a connection which might not be obvious at first. The humor frequently comes from the conscious brain seeing the dichotomy and absurdity between the two images.
Although Pollack includes copious endnotes and an extensive bibliography, the lack of notation within the text as to where those endnotes should be seen tends to make them a little less useful. Nevertheless, he has been careful to provide sources for all of his claims. The notes, bibliography, and index run to more than a third the length of the text proper.
If you're merely looking for a collection of puns on a variety of topics, you'd be better off with Richard Lederer's Get Thee to a Punnery. Although Pollack includes numerous puns in his study (including some which are just dropped in), the focus of this work is to explore the history of the pun and the changing attitudes towards this form of wordplay. The incidental puns are almost a distraction since they are frequent enough that the reader is looking for them, but rare enough that they don't jump off of every page.
Pollack has created an entertaining book that traces the history of the pun (as well as associated wordplay) and even manages to explain the humor behind the pun without getting pedantic. The Pun Also Rises is an excellent study of the pun for those who have fallen prey to the need to pun as well as those who are simply interested in either humor or semantics.
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