Acorny post about puns

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Flickr? I hardly know 'er!
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  • Flickr? I hardly know 'er!
Like most things, the eggcorn is neither an Easter morning side dish nor an unusually large growth on the bottom of the foot. It is a seed, encased in a shell, that falls off trees and provides snacks for passing wildlife. Bear with me, though the eggcorn might seem like a lark—I’m nut oaking.

“Eggcorn,” of course, sounds roughly the same as “acorn,” but it’s also a term that linguists coined to describe an apt, if erroneous, linguistic substitution—a malapropism that actually sort of works. For instance, “financial heartship,” or “on the spurt of the moment.” I learned about eggcorns when I was shocked to discover that the phrase “You’ve got another thing coming” is incorrect. Because the clause that traditionally precedes it is “If you think that,” the other thing you have coming is actually another think—an eggcorn because the substitution of thing doesn’t much alter the meaning of the phrase.

A University of Pennsylvania linguist called eggcorns "tiny little poems, a symptom of human intelligence and creativity." This sounds complimentary, though it’s odd that the linguist used the word “symptoms”—a neutral term, if you’re going by the dictionary, but also one usually associated with disease. One wonders if deep down he’s one of those pun haters.

Like my colleague Steve Bogira (and commenter Andrew Hjortzberg, who wins everything), I can jive with puns. What I’d like to stick a fork in is spoonerisms, which are occasionally clever but more often grating—the idea is that sounds in a given phrase are switched around, so one might say “sons of toil,” for instance, instead of “tons of soil.” (This example lifted directly from Merriam-Webster, 11th ed.—the authority on humor in our office.) Near where I live in Rogers Park, there’s a coffee shop where the sandwich menu is printed in spoonerisms, which can present a logistical challenge if you’re placing an order before you’ve had any coffee, and a existential challenge if you’re a self-respecting adult person. Spoonerisms are named after Rev. Dr. William Archibald Spooner, an absent-minded Oxford professor who was given to slips of the tongue. To his credit, they don’t seem to have been intentional. And he wasn’t happy about his reputation. Cecil Adams reported in 2002:

One evening, a group of carousing students gathered beneath his window and loudly called for him to address them. "You don't want a speech," he answered testily. "You only want me to say one of those things."

Tom Swifties, meanwhile, are named after the Tom Swift series of young-adult adventure novels, which were larded with adverbs. The Tom Swifty is a parody of the style—it involves a pun that links a phrase, usually a quotation, to the adverb that describes it:

"This sauce could use some more seasoning," he said sagely.

“I sort of have a thing for redheads," she said gingerly.

I first encountered Tom Swifties in the Lorrie Moore short story “Community Life,” in which the protagonist, Olena, entertains herself with them:

“I like a good sled dog," she said huskily.

“This hot dog's awful," she said frankly.

One website, by Thomas Alan Gray, arranges Tom Swifties into four classes. The first involves a simple adverb, like the examples above. Class 2 Tom Swifties use an adverb phrase:

"Don't let me drown in Egypt!" pleaded Tom, deep in denial.

Class 3 Tom Swifties involve the structure of the words involved:

"There's an insect in my French cheese," said Tom briefly.

And Class 4 Tom Swifties put the pun in the verb—not a classic example of the form, but according to this website considered Tom Swifties anyway. They’re also called “croakers.” My favorite of Gray’s examples is classed as both a 1 and a 4:

"I'm going to end it all," Sue sighed.

A couple years ago the New York Times ran a Tom Swifties competition in the comments section of a blog post. "'Jesus Christ,’ Tom said crossly” was a clear winner.

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