The Menace of Puns

by Fr. Leonard Feeney, M.I.C.M.

“You like chips , don’t you?” said the little girl, as I kept reaching my hand into the dish and extracting another and another flaky fried-potato and began crackling it with my teeth. “Yes,” I replied, “I’m a regular chip monk.”

Now how funny are such things? How good is a pun? Even at its best I claim it is never very good. In fact, I think it is somewhat harmful to the mind.

The other day it was reported in the newspaper that a Maine hen had won a prize for having hatched nearly two hundred pullets in the course of a single year. Now, what ought the faithful punster to remark on hearing that? He ought to remark that the hen deserved the Pulletser Prize. . . . I see.

Obviously the mental level of a pun is not deep. For a pun is only surface humor. Real humor lies in seeing an incongruity between a fact and an imitation of a fact, between a truth and an almost truth. The incongruity observed is not complete, but only partial; because a likeness as well as an unlikeness must exist in the bogus that pretends to be real before it becomes funny. When both are presented to the mind in contrast, we laugh. Why we laugh is a mystery. It seems that the intellect is submitted to some sort of hot and cold douche in one shower. The mind half accepts, half rejects what is being offered to it for recognition. At one and the same moment it sees a darkness and a light, a nothingness and a somethingness; it becomes simultaneously aware of its own madness and its own sanity.

This experience makes it rush to the exercise of knowledge with a new freshness and delight. It leaps, jumps at truth, snares it out of the trappings that try to conceal it, and fairly hugs it with joy, beholding it, as it were, like sunlight seeping through a cloud, like bright water bubbling out of the parched earth. The mind becomes tremendously excited over the fact that it cannot be fooled, over the surprising accuracy of its own function in the face of a plausible mistake. This causes a surplus activity to take place in the spirit, which reverts inward, and, finding no place to go, turns outward, quickly overflows into the body, and results in that beautiful explosion called laughter, which is not only analogically divine, but also specifically human. Animals do not laugh; neither do angels. The former cannot see the point of what is laughable; the latter have nothing to laugh with.

It will be well to make here a most important observation. One cannot laugh at the false which imitates the true, unless one knows clearly that there is a true and that the false, though approximating it, is not achieving it. A toy frog is funny both because it is a frog, and because it isn’t; also because there is a real frog which it isn’t. A monkey is amusing, first, because he is not a man; second, because he certainly looks and acts very much like a man; and, third, because there is such a being as man.

Other things being equal, our ability to laugh depends on the number of our certitudes because the more certitudes we possess, the more counterfeits of them can occur. People who believe in little laugh at little. The world of the skeptic is an utterly humorless one. If, when I go to the zoo and am confronted with an almost human-featured chimpanzee who amuses me with his antics and the expression he assumes while munching peanuts — if I am suddenly persuaded that this tailed, hairy, smelly creature is in reality a sleeping Shakespeare, a dormant Goethe, an undeveloped Milton, on the verge of breaking into speech, asserting his intelligence, and announcing his rage at the injustice of being confined in a cage, then the chimpanzee not only ceases to be amusing to me, he becomes positively and shriekingly tragic. I know of a college professor, a psychologist, who keeps a statue of a gorilla on his desk. For his own amusement? No. For his own contemplation. The professor’s bronze gorilla is not a toy; it is a terror: a horrible picture of what he believes he himself would be if his ancestors had not mated correctly.

Some years ago we had not lost our enthusiasm for the circus, that delightful world of topsy-turvy where all the men behaved like animals, and all the animals like men. While attending the circus we enjoyed our sanity all the more from having it rubbed the wrong way. We admired the intelligent elephant, we chuckled at the unintelligent clown. But only because it was all a few hours of make-believe. Nobody went to the circus laboratory-minded, or imagined for a moment that after the show the elephant went out and bought a copy of the evening newspaper; or that the clown trotted off to a cage and began drinking water through his nose. How long the circus, a world-old institution, will endure depends on how long a still large number of normal minds can withstand, let us say, the influence of university psychologists, who observe in rat mazes those pedagogical principles which they supply generously to school teachers for the training and edification of our children . . . Animals, by the way, never go to the circus. They have to be forced there, and forcibly kept there, too.

I think I am now able to say exactly what a pun is. It consists in seeing the incongruity between the true and the false in the matter of words. The reason why a pun is never unequivocally funny is because words are only arbitrary symbols of thought: their truth is due entirely to custom, not to essence or idea. Humor consists in seeing incongruity in idea. Puns are only pseudo-humorous.

The French have the right name for a pun when they call it un jeu de mots. It is true that a pun besides, being a mere jeu de mots, can sometimes carry a humorous overtone in idea, as, for instance, calling Mr. Chesterton “a tank of paradoxygen.” But the punness of this statement might be taken away without destroying the humor. Mr. Chesterton would be funny as a tank of anything, having once described himself as “a well-meaning hippopotamus.” But in the strict pun it is required that there be only an incongruity of words without letting in any incongruity of idea. When Voltaire remarked to a lady seated next to him at dinner, who insisted on dropping tobacco ashes in his tea-cup: J’aimerais mieux mon thé que des cendres (J’aimerais mieux monter que descendre), he uttered a perfect pun, in which there is clearly no vestige of humor, though there is much of wit. But a witty man is admired for his mental adroitness rather than for his mental hilarity. He can often be, as Voltaire was (Alfred Noyes to the contrary, notwithstanding), the most cruel and cynical of men. He can even be an atheist. A humorist cannot be primarily a cynic, nor ever an atheist.

Sometimes, because of its extreme appositeness to a situation, a pun can acquire an elegance that makes it relatively delightful. As good a pun as was ever spoken, to my memory, was made by a young English Jesuit, now teaching at Wimbledon College. He met in a railway train a young man who said he was constructing a philosophy of his own. The young man declared that he set the foundation of his private philosophical system in the following epistemological principle: “I am, therefore I think!” “Oh,” replied the young Jesuit, “isn’t that putting Descartes before the horse?”

The trouble with the inveterate punster is that he does not wait for puns to occur, nor even for one to be needed; he goes about seeking them, forcibly making them up. And this requires almost no talent, because word resemblances (which can be easily turned into word absurdities) are uncountable.

Likewise, a pun requires no art whatsoever in the telling. A genuine joke often demands some dramatic ability in putting it across. But a pun is equally good in anybody’s mouth, with anybody’s voice, with anybody’s gestures. And once heard, one wants nothing more than never to hear it again. Our tendency on hearing a pun is almost as much to jeer as to cheer, not because it is bogus, but because it is bogus-bogus. That most withering of all depreciations, “He thinks he’s funny,” is applied most frequently to whom? To the punster. American radio comedians, with a plethora of puns on every program, have long since ceased to be entertaining. They have become positive nuisances.

The English are incorrigible punsters, but their puns are better than ours because they take more care with them, and, being conservative by nature, they do not try to make too many. Americans must always over-produce, and over-production in the matter of puns is disastrous. We would do better to leave all puns to the English and turn our minds to that field of humor where extravagance is no handicap, and where nobody in the world is able to compete with us: the field of metaphors. The metaphors in Cole Porter’s remarkable ditty, “You’re the Top,” are not only the most inventive imaginable, but their very extravagance enhances their charm. The headline-writer on a New York newspaper, who, when John Masefield visited America a few years ago, captioned the story of the poet-laureate’s refusal to give an interview to the newspaper reporters with the title King’s Canary Refuses to Chirp produced a specimen of what we can expect any moment in our daily journals. And no English low-brow would be capable, as Ring Lardner’s baseball player was, of giving his sweetheart a look “that you could pour on a waffle.”

I said in the beginning of this paper that puns can be harmful to the mind. They can, because they teach the mind to become flaccid and lazy, lazy in a sublime activity where it should be most alert: in laughter, that delightful paroxysm of soul and body together, in which human nature rejoices in its own sanity in a way no ape has since the world began, nor will until the world ends.

(You’d Better Come Quietly, Sheed and Ward, New York, 1939)

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