There was this king who hated puns. Sadly for him, the best jokes his courtier related were all puns. His Majesty was fed up with the courtier’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of what the King found distasteful. Having been inflicted with puns day in and day out, the King challenged him, ‘Come up with a pun on me if you can!’ Pat came the reply, ‘But, your Majesty, the King is no subject!’
That was perhaps the first pun that I came across. Mr Venceslaus who taught us English in Class IX was the one who narrated this to us. Ambrose Bierce, he had added, had defined it as a ‘form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.’ That was the first time I was hearing of 'The Devil’s Dictionary' authored by Bierce. Coming to think of it, Mr Venceslaus was the one who introduced me to several things that have caught my fancy and had me in their thrall – like crosswords, tongue-twisters, puzzles, word games, brain-teasers etc.
But then, I digress. This piece is not about Mr Venceslaus, it is about puns. The world consists of two types of people: those who like pun and those, like the king we spoke of, who do not. The latter seem to subscribe to the theory that puns don’t make us laugh, but groan. Caligula was one such: it is said that he ordered an actor to be roasted alive for a bad pun. Dryden called it the ‘lowest and most groveling kind of wit’.
Dissecting a pun, one could say it arises from the use of two similar-sounding words that differ in the sense or a word with two (or more!)meanings. They are considered to be the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: their life is no longer than the nanosecond in which we resolve the semantic confusion. Most of them are, at least look, contrived, though Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, that master of humour in contrived situations, himself was no punster. Mark Twain too, like Plum, enamoured reviewers with punlessness.
Shakespeare, however, does pun, and pun often. Many are bawdy: puns operate, after all, on double entendre. Yet the bard is guilty less of punning than wordplay, which Elizabethan taste considered more a sign of literary refinement than humor; hence ‘puns’ in seemingly inappropriate places, like a dying Mercutio’s ‘Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.’
The heaviest dose of puns that I ever received was the answer to the contrived question (which is an integral part of the joke) ‘Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert?’ The answer, which packs a three-pun-punch is, ‘Because he can eat the sand which is there. But who brought the sandwiches there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred.’
My friend Marcel Hickman once told me of a colleague of his in what was then called Exide India. On a complaint from his wife of domestic violence, he was nabbed by the police. This was reported in The Statesman, Calcutta (It had not been rechristened Kolkata then) beneath the headline ‘Exide Employee Charged with Battery’. Knowing that Marcel is given to invent stories like this, this might be apocryphal, but nevertheless punny, oops! …funny.