The Daily

On Language

Without Compunction

May 20, 2014 | by

Doing verbal battle at the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships.

800px-38-svaghi_C_lotta_Taccuino_Sanitatis_Casanatense_4182._detail

An illustration from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, from the late fourteenth century. (No pun included.)

The only thing harder than crafting a good pun is finding someone to appreciate it. It’s not that puns are universally reviled—though their critics make it seem that way. It’s just that for every person who loves a clever play on words, there exists another who absolutely despises them; in mixed company, puns are, along with politics and religion, best left alone. If only there were an app that could match people by their senses of humor. Tinder? I barely know ’er!

If it’s difficult to pun profitably in the United States, it’s all but impossible in Mexico, where I’ve been living for the past year. Here I’m limited somewhat by my imperfect Spanish, but also by a lack of fellow punning linguists. There’s not even a word for pun in Spanish, which made it difficult to explain to friends here that after ten months of wasting my presumably hilarious wordplay on their apparently deaf ears, I’d bought myself a ticket to Austin, Texas, to compete in the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships. Despite its grandiose name, there is no qualifying round ahead of this “championship,” and, with the exception of a lanky Englishman in a chicken suit, all the participants were American.

“So a pun is like a play on words?” a Mexican friend asked before I set out, using the Spanish phrase juego de palabras, that most dictionaries list as the translation for “pun.”

Well, yes, I said, but it’s a specific kind of play on words. I tried to find an example, but I hadn’t realized until that moment just how difficult it is to come up with puns on the spot. The example I offered, which defined the exchange of sex for spaghetti as pasta-tution, didn’t translate as well as I’d hoped.

But punning off the cuff is exactly what’s required to succeed in the Pun-Off’s marquee event. Contestants in the “Punslingers” bracket, facing off in pairs onstage, are given a theme—Disney, weather, et cetera—and forced to make thematically relevant puns every ten seconds or so until one contestant runs out of ideas.

The result, of course, is a series of mostly terrible puns, the sort that elicit the classic weary groan with which puns are so unfortunately associated. “There’s a hook made specially for grabbing people named Ling,” to name one of countless examples. “The GrappLing hook!”

Just as a slam dunk in basketball earns the same number of points as a layup, this portion of the Pun-Off rewards a contestant for the quantity of her puns rather than their quality. As the moderators explained several times, in a refrain later echoed by desperate contestants defending their ripostes, “It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be a pun.” The Punslingers event may be the only sport on Earth in which the highest level of play is the most painful to watch.

Herein lies the Pun-Off’s ontological dilemma. In real life, the best puns tend to be spontaneous: many are funny in the moment but fail to rise to the higher standard to which we hold jokes that are given time to grow and improve in the course of being committed to paper. And yet the sustained, absolute spontaneity that comes of scraping out pun after pun onstage quickly pulls every contestant down to the bottom of the barrel—a low stratum I think of as “[blank]er, I barely know her” territory.

The closest I’ve come to finding a resolution to this dilemma is in the work of the early twentieth-century humorist Stephen Leacock, to which I was introduced by this year’s Punniest of Show winner Alexandra Petri, who also happens to write a pun-heavy column for the Washington Post. “The inveterate punster,” Leacock wrote, “follows conversation as a shark follows a ship.” What is missing from the Pun-Off, then, is this conversation; onstage, we inveterate punsters are forced to play only with the words we can find inside ourselves, rather than lying in wait for a punworthy moment in the course of normal dialogue. Hence the excess of gimmes like “philosophers Kant hold their liquor,” as opposed to a more organic, transcendent play on words, as when I misremembered the color of a friend’s car years ago and he told me that “it must have been a pigment of my imagination.” Or when a friend interning for a congressman confessed that he snuck a glance at John Boehner’s crotch in a Capitol restroom and I declared him the Peeker of the House. Such turns of phrase are unlikely to appear in any serious writing I attempt down the road, and yet the elation they produce is among my favorite feelings: a credit to their author and a gift to anyone with the wit and good sense to enjoy them.

When it was my turn to take the stage in Austin, however, all that wit and good sense promptly left me—boiled away, perhaps, as the scant shade migrated from my picnic blanket to the lawn chairs and their foresighted occupants behind me. A good two hundred people came to watch us sculpt and mangle the English language in the yard behind the O. Henry Museum, a modest old house wedged between towering hotels in downtown Austin. From under a tent just left of the small stage, a panel of judges doled out their points, but the real power lay with the moderators onstage, whose task it was to confirm that each new volley was indeed a pun, and not a mere cliché or, worse still, the kind of double entendre whose second meaning is derived from suggestive inflection rather than a legitimate play on words. And while, between rounds, the moderators showed themselves to be talented punsters in their own right, the stronger competitors’ deep vocabularies occasionally extended beyond those of anyone else on stage. Playing on the theme of art, for example, one contestant said he’d come up with a better pun if he weren’t so groggy—which, besides describing a state of exhaustion, apparently also names a kind of crushed clay used in pottery. Dictionaries being too unwieldy for a fast-paced live competition, in such moments the moderators have little choice but to take a contestant at her wordplay.

My time on stage challenged no one’s vocabulary, unless someone simply couldn’t find the words to express how quickly I was knocked out of contention. My opponent and I were given the theme of horses, a subject about which I know almost nothing; I opened with a weak joke about “stallion” for time, and before I caught my breath it was my turn again. I mumbled something about a quarter horse that was not quite a pun; the moderators gave me a chance to come up with something better, and after emitting the same faux-contemplative ums and ahs that used to escape me when caught off-guard in a job interview, I threw up my hands and admitted defeat. Despite a lifetime of making and loving puns, not to mention crossing an international border to demonstrate what until recently I called my skills, I’m almost certain I gave the weakest performance of the day.

My poor performance was a predictable result of my inexperience with the relevant kind of pun. Like Leacock’s shark, I follow conversations waiting for a good moment to strike. The constraints of the Punslingers tournament make for something more like a SeaWorld show: a performer can do great things if he’s comfortable with the walls placed around him.

Indeed, my favorite moment of the day occurred during a round in which players had to pun on the theme of “Groups (human and animal)”—e.g., flock, herd, choir, and the like. The two men on stage had exhausted most of the obvious words in the category, and were beginning to butt heads with the moderators as they strayed from proper groups into things like the spaces that hold groups (a stadium, a toolbox) and the plural form of any noun that came to mind (fans, otters), which would have allowed the round to run on indefinitely. After a healthy volley one of the contestants offered an invalid answer, and then another, courting disqualification. And then he rebounded with the perfect pun—not the most clever, not the most original, but one that managed to both keep the round going and poke fun at the increasingly strict moderators: “Next year,” he said, “this topic ought to be band.” Despite the limits on both time and topic, this contestant delivered a pun in the heat of the moment that, against all odds, actually made sense. The crowd went wild, perhaps forgetting for a moment that on Monday they would have to return to a world where words mean just one thing at a time.

Ted Trautman has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Wired, and others. He lives in Puebla, Mexico.

43 COMMENTS

41 Comments

  1. Drew Byrne | May 20, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    And now he has written for the Paris Review — fame at last, and fame that lasts!

  2. Neil in Chicago | May 20, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    Oscar Wilde claimed he could make a pun on any subject. Somebody said – ‘The queen’ Without missing a beat, he replied ‘The queen is not a subject.’

  3. Chris from Manchester | May 21, 2014 at 7:37 am

    Well done Mr Trautman, a true fisher of words.
    May I humbly suggest that a pun might be a tad more acceptable if couched in a limerick.
    To wit:
    An lady of age from the coast.
    Had one particular boast.
    She said,’Nevermore will I cook!’
    As she gave her breakfast a ‘look’
    And the eggs scrambled onto the toast.

  4. Deann in Austin | May 21, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Ted: Here is my best spontaneous Spanish pun. It was the late 80s and late one night I was out on a date with my then-boyfriend, a Costa Rican. The car ahead of us lost a hub cap. He slowed down and I opened the car door, picked up the hub cap, offered it to him and said, “¿Quieres tomar una copa?”

  5. Betsy | May 21, 2014 at 10:45 am

    many moons ago, in German class we came across the word Mu(ss)tet ;where (ss) is the Beta form of s; and I drew a picture of several Bullwinkles playing instruments. I still recall the word, but -sadly- not the meaning.

  6. Jan Sand | May 22, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    Puns most fit for consumption are frequently out of aggression – hot cross puns. But the two monuments to puns come from Groucho Marx.

    1. A book is a man’s best friend outside a dog and inside a dog it’s too dark to read.

    2. Time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana.

  7. Alex | May 23, 2014 at 8:18 am

    Maybe where Mr Trautman lives in Puebla it’s different, but where I’ve lived in Mexico a form of innuendo-laden punning (‘albur’, ‘alburear’) is extremely common. Also, if he wants to see an entire comedy routine based solely around puns, there are several British-based comedians who do this: Milton Jones, Tim Vine, and (the Canadian) Stewart Francis.

  8. Rick B. | May 23, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    Is Alexandra Petri attractive? I mean, is she a real dish?

  9. Dog | May 23, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    ‘Punniest’ is not a pun. It’s just a rhyme.

    ‘Pigment of your imagination’ is fucking great. That Oscar Wilde quip in the comment above is even better.

  10. ward j.p. | May 23, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    Hau Long is a Chinese?

  11. David | May 23, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    A local Safeway market is being rebuilt. After the old building was torn down I was able to say, “Safeway se fue”, my proudest bilingual pun

  12. ahad | May 23, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    oh what a wonderful read.

    I like to think I am a serious person but some of these puns cracked me up.

    I really needed this. Thank you.

    (commentators excellent as well!)

  13. Tyler | May 23, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    My favorite pun in Mexico is this:

    Que lleva mas edad — un oso que tiene un ano, o un loro que tiene un ano?

    El loro, porque tiene ano y pico!

    The play is on the double meaning of pico — meaning both “a little” and “beak”. That may help you explain what a pun is in Spanish.

  14. Randy | May 23, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    The greatest punster of all time is Plautus.

    The second greatest is Shakespeare.

    But the greatest is Plautus.

  15. Iñigo | May 23, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Guess this poor fella has never heard of guillermo cabrera infante. Sounds like Spanish is his mother thong.

  16. Richard Buss | May 23, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    Hoping that every reader will suck home to the urge to tell their best, I submit the following: Disney’s witches have (ab)normally been depicted as dark, scheming weasels, so when Snow White’s m&m esis looks into the mirror, the evil witch asks, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
    Who’s the ferret of them all?”

  17. Evan Haning | May 23, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    I told my daughter Amber she was amberdextrose: “On the one hand you’re so sweet, and in the other hand you’re so sweet!”

  18. Evan Haningi | May 23, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    When Willard Scott was a DJ, he read a bank commercial that ended with the line: “Our assets over ten billion dollars.” The. Listeners heard him move his chair. As it squeaked, he said, “NOW our assets over TWENTY billion dollars!”

  19. Allan Stokes | May 23, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    To cross the linguistic divide with your Phonetian Aztecs and Incas, you would do well to situate “pigment of the imagination” in the metaphorical undergrowth of Jorge Luis Borges short story “Blue Tigers” (Tigres azules), a story written around a shade of the colour blue which can _only_ be seen in dreams. It might also help to draw attention to how the ear of the native English speaker functions as a nun bun of accoustic confabulation against vast, swollen seas of the set phrase.

  20. Christina Seine | May 24, 2014 at 3:47 am

    I too loved the “pigment of your imagination” pun – it’s arguably one of the most colorful puns in his story. ;)

  21. Jim X | May 24, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Someone once asked me if I could ever love a Chinese man.
    I told them “That would be Wong.”

  22. Iñigo | May 24, 2014 at 10:46 am

    In that case, you should wok the wok

  23. Tom O'Neill | May 24, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Google translate offer “etruécanors” as the Spanish for “pun.”

  24. Richard Buss | May 24, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    I am sorry if I offended owners of pet ferrets with my pun. I thought ferrets were like weasels, but then I guess I couldn’t see the ferrets for the trees.

  25. g caldwell | May 24, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    The Spanish word for pun is “calambur,” although “retruécano” can also be used. The RAE dictionary gives this example of a “calambur”:
    plátano es/plata no es

    plátano es = it’s a banana
    plata no es = it’s not money

    There’s an es.wikipedia.org page for calambures.

  26. Sterling Kitchings | May 25, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    There is a street in Te Anua (New Zealand)named Wong Way.

  27. Rumpel | May 26, 2014 at 4:28 am

    I know it’s not original but I still like, after 60 years,the answer my father gave when as a child I asked whatr the difference was between a stoat and weasel. The reply was that one was weasily distinguished and other was stotally different,

  28. Greg Newall | May 26, 2014 at 5:28 am

    Trautman, the cure little trout, kept veering between “he” and “she”. Goodness gracious moi, what’s wrong with “s/he” or “their” if opne needs to get around this nonsensical good-feminist vogue that is frizzing the intertubes?

  29. Linus | May 26, 2014 at 9:53 am

    Q: What was the Peeker of the House peeking at?
    A:Pecker of the House

  30. Daniel | May 27, 2014 at 5:13 am

    Ah – just thought of a horse pun for you.

    A western is a sad ol’ tale.

  31. Daniel | May 27, 2014 at 5:15 am

    correct that!

    Many westerns are sad ol’ tales!

  32. Arthur Schiff | May 29, 2014 at 5:05 am

    The doctor cut his hand deeply. Another doctor asked if help. “No,”he was told, “OK,suturself.”

  33. Frank | May 30, 2014 at 11:18 am

    I was astounded to recently learn that users of ASL (American Sign language) engage in punning.

  34. Richard Buss | May 31, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    Being “engaged to punning” is one thing, but marrying one is not funning.

  35. Richard Buss | May 31, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    Once bitten by a pun, how can one stop? Darwin thought it would be achieved by erection of the fittest.

  36. Richard Buss | June 1, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    Rumpel, your father’s pun is the best I’ve heard in a long while. I can’t think of a pun to match his. Can anyone?

  37. Graeme Black | June 2, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    Poor Ted’s equine scratching. At the next Pun-Off let’s hope he mare make the mane event, less blinkered, but in-spurred, trotting out a herd of equine terms, heard despite the bit between his teeth. Let Ted whip his tailing competitors and make perhaps the audience bridle then saddle sore and even bolt, with his galloping delivery to rein supreme at the highest halter! The ruminations are well studded and endless.

  38. Grid | June 6, 2014 at 3:08 am

    Yes Rumpel, that weasel pun is a real Mustela

  39. Chris Turner | June 17, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Was the tournament a round robin? http://unsungpun.com/round-robin/

  40. Richard Buss | June 28, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    Punsters have quit too soon! Surely there is a world of wordplay out there that needs to be aired.

  41. Becky | July 14, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    After all, to air is human…

2 Pingbacks

  1. […] Just as a slam dunk in basketball earns the same number of points as a layup, this portion of the Pun-Off rewards a contestant for the quantity of her puns rather than their quality. As the moderators explained several times, in a refrain later echoed by desperate contestants defending their ripostes, “It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be a pun.” The Punslingers event may be the only sport on Earth in which the highest level of play is the most painful to watch. –Ted Trautman, Paris Review. […]

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