The pun, it is often said, is the lowest form of humour, playing as it does on the double-meanings with which the English language is replete. “No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery,” is a clever recent example, conflating as it does the metaphorical meaning of the current expression “push the envelope” with the two meanings of the identical-sounding words “stationary” and “stationery”. Similarly, “I changed my iPod’s name to Titanic. It’s syncing now” is an excellent pun, given the different meanings of “syncing” and “sinking”. Amongst the newer ones of our times, this one’s fit to stand in their company: “I’ve started telling everyone about the benefits of eating dried grapes. It’s all about raisin awareness.”
A classic pun always looks for clever messaging, playing not just on double meanings but also conveying a larger point. “I saw an ad for burial plots, but that’s the last thing I need.” Or “If you’re bad at haggling, you’ll end up paying the price.” Take the seemingly bland “A thief who stole a calendar got twelve months.” Even cleverer is this one: “Police were summoned to a day-care centre where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.”
Some are quite literal in their humour. “I got some batteries that were given out free of charge.” Or “Prison is just one word to you, but for some people, it’s a whole sentence.” And “Why is ‘dark’ spelled with a k and not c? Because you can’t see in the dark.” Even more simply, “A dentist and a manicurist married. They fought tooth and nail.” And “I lost my wife’s audiobook, and now I’ll never hear the end of it.” Or best of all: “I did a menial job at a pizza parlour. I kneaded the dough.” Unless you prefer: “I’m trying to organise a hide and seek tournament, but good players are really hard to find.”
Puns sometimes involve playing on place names: “England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool.” Or “When the smog lifts in Los Angeles, U.C.L.A.” (UCLA is the famous university campus in the city, but it also means “you see LA”). Puns also up-end cliches: “Why is it unwise to share your secrets with a clock? Well, time will tell.”
Then there are the bilingual puns: “French pancakes give me the crepes”. Or “did you hear about the pyromaniac yoga teacher who was convicted of asana?” There are also puns that stretch the literal meanings of English words: “This girl today said she recognised me from the Vegetarians Club, but I’d swear I’ve never met herbivore.” Or “When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.” You can see this one coming: “How much did the pirate pay to get his ears pierced? A buccaneer.”
Personally, I find some of the puns going around the Internet to be a bit contrived, and their humour rather forced: “Did you hear about the fellow whose entire left side was cut off? He’s all right now.” By creating a premise that doesn’t occur in real life, only for the purposes of a joke, I think the pun doesn’t deserve more than a wry grimace. A very similar example: “The guy who fell onto an upholstery machine last week is now fully recovered.” And “What do you call a pig with laryngitis? Disgruntled.” One that seems funny till it isn’t: “I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I just can’t put it down.” Haha, but what on earth is “anti-gravity”?
Some of the more amusing ones I’ve come across recently include: “Did you hear about the crossed-eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils?” And “I stayed up all night to see where the sun went, and then it dawned on me.” Or “Those who get too big for their pants will be totally exposed in the end.” How about this: “When I told my contractor I didn’t want carpeted steps, he gave me a blank stair.”
But the cleverest of all, in my view, is the double pun: “When she saw her first strands of grey hair she thought she’d dye. But then it grew on her.” Punning is indeed a habit that grows on you!
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Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language