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Posts Tagged ‘wordplay’

Wordplay 101

May 12, 2015 | by

John_Ritchie_An_Expected_Rise_in_Stocks

John Ritchie, An Expected Rise in Stocks, nineteenth century.

It’s galling to reach adulthood and realize how many things have gone over your head. That, in a single e-mail thread, you can learn both that “Staples” is a pun and that Chips Ahoy! is an allusion to “Ship ahoy.” I mean, you like to think that if someone had forced you to consider the matter for five seconds, you would have realized. But the point is that I had not realized—and I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the definition of stupidity

That night, I tried to comfort myself by thinking of the plays on words I had recognized in the course of my thirty-plus years of relative sentience. U-Haul. The Beatles. Central Perk from Friends. That fish and chips shop, A Salt and Battery. Read More »

American Grotesque, and Other News

December 1, 2014 | by

William Mortensen’s L’Amour (1932) doubles as the cover of a new book about him, American Grotesque.

  • Don DeLillo rereads his own opus, Underworld, seventeen years after its publication. (“Great fucking line,” he’s written next to “The subway seals you durably in the stone of the moment.”)
  • In the thirties, William Mortensen was one of the most celebrated photographers in the nation—his pictures were “unabashedly theatrical, bizarre, and often louche.” What sank his reputation: a critical tiff with Ansel Adams.
  • The Chinese State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has moved to ban wordplay “on the grounds that it breaches the law on standard spoken and written Chinese, makes promoting cultural heritage harder and may mislead the public—especially children.” (An example of the now forbidden fruit: “replacing a single character in ke bu rong huan has turned ‘brook no delay’ into ‘coughing must not linger’ for a medicine ad.”)
  • While we’re on censorship: In the quest for G-rated moon landings, NASA used to go to great lengths to scrub astronauts’ profanity from its transcripts. In the case of one particularly salty spaceman, they went further—they had him hypnotized. “A psychiatrist put the idea in his head that he would rather hum when his mind wandered.”
  • On the history of fairy tales: “In the coded language of symbol and metaphor they chart the journey from childhood to adulthood. The Russian commentator Eleaser Meletinksji wrote, ‘It is even possible to say that the fairy tale begins with the break-up of one family and ends with the creation of a new one.’”

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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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