SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: “The quip and the dread: Why English is such a great language for puns.”


Here’s one for the Punny Pastor, but first, if the meaning remains unclear …


1. the humorous use of a word or phrase so as to emphasize or suggest its different meanings or applications, or the use of words that are alike or nearly alike in sound but different in meaning; a play on words.

2. the word or phrase used in this way.

I can’t think of a single pun for us as an introduction.

The quip and the dread: Why English is such a great language for puns (The Economist)

Gamers now even take part in world champunships

Away With Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions. By Joe Berkowitz. Harper Perennial; 273 pages.

LAST week’s issue of this paper contained the following headlines: “Rooms for improvement” (in a story about British housing); “Though Mooch is taken, Mooch abides” (on the firing of Anthony Scaramucci); and “LIBOR pains” (on interbank loan rates). The Economist is not alone in its taste for wordplay. Our colleagues at the Financial Times routinely sneak subtle jokes into their headlines (July 17th: “Why China’s global shipping ambitions will not easily be contained”) while those at the tabloids indulge themselves more obviously. On the arrest of a famous golfer for drink-driving: “DUI of the Tiger”.

These authors are fortunate to work at English-language publications. For English is unusually good for puns. It has a large vocabulary and a rich stock of homophones from which puns can be made. It is constantly evolving, with new words being invented and old ones given fresh meanings. And it is mostly uninflected, allowing for verbs and nouns to switch places. Moreover, other than the occasional customary feminine pronoun, for ships, say, or nation-states, it has no gendered nouns, which makes it easier to play with innuendo and double entendres. (Chinese is another good language for punsters, which is a boon for those keen to avoid the country’s censors. Puns are especially popular around Chinese new year.)

Newspaper editors get paid to write silly jokes for an audience. But over the past few years a growing band of amateurs has taken up the sport. In New York a monthly event called Punderdome features jokesters with pseudonyms such as “Punder Enlightening”, “Jargon Slayer” and “Words Nightmare” who compete over the course of four increasingly absurd rounds. Similar competitions exist in Washington, DC, (Beltway Pundits), Milwaukee (Pundamonium), San Francisco (Bay Area Pun-Off) and elsewhere. The annual O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin, Texas, which started in 1978, bills itself as the genre’s World Championship. (Word Champunship, surely?)

But who would pay to watch people make puns? That was how Joe Berkowitz, an editor at Fast Company, an American business magazine, reacted when he first discovered Punderdome. He went on to spend a year travelling round America, attending pun-parties and interviewing humour experts and comedy writers. The outcome? “Away With Words”, a faintly anthropological examination of puns and the people who make them. The chief attraction of these competitions, he reports, is that they create a space for something “people feel like they’re not supposed to like and ought not to do” …