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I myself am of the punning perversion. So I agree with the poet Ernest Hartsock, who once wrote that puns "are mainly objected to by Puritans" and that great literature "must arise from a healthy and daring experimentation with words"—an experimentation epitomized by punning. "I have a suspicion that a reason for the disdain of some of our pedants toward puns is a natural inability to grasp wit of any kind," Hartsock said, "—yea, to grasp anything except an air of dignity."
Hartsock's essay, "In Defense of Punning," was published in the linguistic journal American Speech. "The stigma of the pun has been long enough with us," he observed. And he wrote this in 1929.
Several years later, I was in first or second grade on Chicago's south side when I heard this riddle:
You're in a steel room with no windows or doors, and all you have is a table and a mirror. How do you escape the room?
You look in the mirror, and see what you saw; you use the saw to cut the table in half; two halves make a whole, and you climb out the whole.
I loved this joke—in part, I think, because of how vivid the steel room was to me, but mainly because of the rise I got out of the punning solution.
In fourth grade, I began my professional writing career with a pun. The Southtown Economist had a riddle contest, to which I submitted:
Why did the Smiths name both of their twin sons Ed?
Because two Eds are better than one.
Bingo! My first paycheck—a pair of tickets to the Colony Theater on 59th Street. So blame the Southtown. Or the Bennett Cerf joke collection from which I stole the bit. In any event, my path was set.
Although it may well have been set without those early influences. It's still unclear whether nature or nurture is mainly responsible for punning ability and inclination. Proponents of a genetic cause maintain that punsters have an extra Y-Not groanasome. The nurture theory attributes punning to early childhood difficulties—an abrupt cessation of breastfeeding, exposure to environmental toxins—leading to hyperactivity of the neurotransmitter dopepunning.
Early research was futile, scientists conducting blood tests in vein. But there's been a recent breakthrough thanks to brain scans. Most subjects who were read a series of puns showed increased activity in a colony of brain cells in the left insular buttock. Subjects whose cells didn't fire were said to have a no-pun left-behind.
"Let us not agree with the little critics that Shakespeare was great despite his puns," Hartsock, the pun fan writing in 1929, observed. "Brilliance of mind, like the radiance of the cut diamond, depends upon ability to dissect and dazzle back the common light intensified in an instant into a million infinitesimal rainbows of prismatic clarity."
So why can't we all just sit back and enjoy puns? Why do they seem to cause Groan's disease? "It may be that our Puritan heritage or our Nordic strain insists upon flagellating us for some intellectual indiscretion," Hartsock suggested, "and has hit on the pun as one of the most pleasurable and consequently the most sinful lapses."
Consider this classic I first heard in high school:
Jimmy arrives late for school one morning, and his teacher wants to know why. "Sorry, Mrs. Jones!" Jimmy squeals. "But I saw a dog crossing the street, and a car drove up and hit him, right in the asshole!"
"Rectum," Mrs. Jones corrects.
"Wrecked him?" Jimmy says. "Damn near killed him!"
Does the punch line make you laugh, groan, or both? Back in high school, I recall marveling at how this pun, like the radiance of the cut diamond, dazzled back the common light intensified in an instant into a million infinitesimal rainbows of prismatic clarity. And it still gives me a tickle in my left insular buttock.