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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. Read More »

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