Thursday, September 07, 2006

A bit about hunting a pun

In my work I deal with bits, bytes, and words, so I have to know about puns, and love to hunt for them:
...there seems to be serious indication that the whole high human art of scripture or writing began with a joke. There are some who will learn with regret that it seems to have begun with a pun.
[GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:198]
Chesterton knew about hunting them too:
The quality of what can only be called buffoonery which is under discussion is indeed one of the many things in which Browning was more of an Elizabethan than a Victorian. He was like the Elizabethans in their belief in the normal man, in their gorgeous and over-loaded language, above all in their feeling for learning as an enjoyment and almost a frivolity. But there was nothing in which he was so thoroughly Elizabethan, and even Shakespearian, as in this fact, that when he felt inclined to write a page of quite uninteresting nonsense, he immediately did so. Many great writers have contrived to be tedious, and apparently aimless, while expounding some thought which they believed to be grave and profitable; but this frivolous stupidity had not been found in any great writer since the time of Rabelais and the time of the Elizabethans. In many of the comic scenes of Shakespeare we have precisely this elephantine ingenuity, this hunting of a pun to death through three pages. In the Elizabethan dramatists and in Browning it is no doubt to a certain extent the mark of a real hilarity. People must be very happy to be so easily amused.
GKC, Robert Browning, 154, emphasis added
Are you amused yet? At least a little bit?


  1. It is why I have always said that language is God's tool, but puns are his playthings. When you pun, you play with God's toys, and he is glad to share.

  2. Punning is the worst vice. There is no vice versa.
    -Old joke

  3. Puns are even more fun in Japanese, where whole swaths of etiquette, grammar, and superstition are based on puns. The number four is unlucky, for instance (also in China and Korea), because it sounds like the word for death.

    Not only can you get that kind, words that sound similar, but there's also a whole level of punning based on the Chinese characters used for different words. The whole Iga/Koga tradition of Japanese martial arts (ninja, for instance) is rife with puns like these. For instance, a female ninja is called a kunoichi, but 'kunoichi' is a totally meaningless word. See, the strokes that make up the character for woman, 女, are the syllable ku in one syllabary (く), the syllable no in the other (ノ), and the Chinese symbol for one, read ichi in Japanese (一). (I apologize if you can't read that; try setting your browser's encoding to Japanese)

    Many of the codes the ninja used were essentially punning games, which would, I think, have proved GKC's point admirably. Too bad the Japanese were such jerks when he was writing; I think he would have liked them, had he met them in one of their better periods.


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