In the last FAPA mailing but one Harry B. Warner said something so dreadful and I can hardly force my hand to write it down. (Three of my fingers are willing enough, but my thumb and forefinger are opposed.) He said -- Ghod forgive him -- that the pun was " the simplest and lowest form of humour". Comes the next FAPA mailing and I see that Warner is still alive -- by FAPA standards anyway. He has not been struck down. Obviously Simon Salt Peter, patron saint of punsters, has left it to me to warn the Warner, and to prove that the pun is not only the most complex, but the very highest--I might even say the all-highest -- form of humour.
1. THE ARGUEMENT FROM AUTHORITY. In the two most famous books in the world, the humour consists almost entirely of puns. Everyone knows that this is so with Shakespeare, but the Bible is an even more striking example. This is not generally regarded as a humorous work -- not by Christians anyway -- but there is one joke in it, and that joke is a pun. I refer of course to the famous verse: " Thou art Peter, and on this rock I shall build my church." If I may say so without being impious, this is not a very good pun, but then it has lost in translation. In the original language of course the word for 'Peter' meant also a rock or stone -- c.f. the Latin 'petrus' or the French 'Pierre'. It was on this pun that the whole structure of organized Christianity was based, and on it the Roman Catholic Church still maintains its claim to the apostolic succession. Can anyone doubt that the history of Christianity and the western world would have been very different if Peter's name had happened to be 'Sandy'?
Truly, as Ackerman said in the Fancyclopedia, " the pun is mightier than the sword", and now that it and it alone of all forms of humor has approval at the very highest level there hardly seems to be any need to look for any other recommendation. I might just point out that puns occur throughout the highest works of English literature, from stray lines like " tread softly, for ye tread on hallowed ground" to the later works of James Joyce which consist almost entirely of puns and wordplay. I might also quote, without looking in any particular direction, the following passage from Fowler's 'Modern English Usage':--
"The assumption that puns are per se contemptible ... is a sign at once of sheepish docility and a desire to seem superior. Puns are good, bad, or indifferent, and only those who lacks the wit to make them are unaware of the fact. "
2. THE ARGUEMENT FROM FIRST PRINCIPLES. In the 'Preface to the Lyrical Ballads' Wordsworth came off with one of those statements so profound that one remembers them all one's life and applies them to every situation. This statement was to the effect that the basis of all aesthetic satisfaction lay in the recognition of similarity in dissimilarity and vice versa. This is very true when you come to think of it, and it might also be an actual definition of the pun. But the pun is not only the most artistic forms of humour, it is different in kind and superior to all other types. The origin of laughter, I suggest, is in the savage's abrupt release of breath in relief at the unexpected downfall of a dreaded enemy. The most primitive form of humour is therefore the spectacle of the 'boss symbol' slipping on a banana skin, and almost every form of humor is a variant on this. All depend for their effect on the discomfiture of other human beings -- mother-in-law jokes, jokes about foreigners, jokes about people at a disadvantage in sexual positions, jokes about deaf people or morons or lunatics. All jokes are more or less sadistic. Think of any jokes you know and see how true that is. There are only two exceptions, the shaggy dog story and the pun. Even the shaggy dog story is suspect, because you are enjoying the discomfiture of your audience when they expect a point and find none. This leaves only the pun as the representative of humour in its most advanced and complex form, the very punnicle of civilization.
3. THE ARGUEMENT FROM PRACTICE. The pun is one of the most genuine forms of humour because it is usually spontaneous. The opportunity comes and passes and only the quickest mind can seize it before it vanishes never to return. It is seldom pre-fabricated wit. For the same reason it is difficult to quote, because it usually needs an explanation of the circumstances, which spoils the element of surprise. As an illustration take the complaint in VOM about the artist who kept defaulting on his obligation to produce a cover. Ackerman's comment was: " He's got aint's in his paints. " Ackerman kept up for years a barrage of puns like this. Not that he only made good puns. He made them ALL. But among them were some that deserve to rank with the greatest in history, puns that are remembered not just because they are clever in themselves, but because they add meaning as well as amusement. I would hate to have to choose Ackerman's best pun -- it would be a life's work -- and otherwise the best example I can give is from a speech by an Irish MP in the late19th Century. He was making an impassioned attack on Irish absentee landlords when someone shouted " Treason!" Quick as a flash he retorted: " What is treason in England is reason in Ireland, because of the absentee!"
It could be, of course, that he had a confederate in the audience. Most people who like puns have some in reserve that came to them as it were in vacuo, and which they file away in their memory banks to await the appropriate set of circumstances. For instance, the next time I come across one of those old-fashioned washing sets--a jug and bowl on a chest of drawers --I shall say: " Ah, ewers of water and drawers of wood!" And Bob Shaw here brought off a beauty the other day. While staying with friends he asked where the salt was and they told him it was in a jar on the shelf. When he looked the jar had fallen over and the salt spilled out. This was it. The chance of a lifetime! "The salt, dear Brutus," he said, " lies not in the jar, but on our shelves. "
Data entry by Judy Bemis
Return to the Willis Papers