Once upon a time—in 382 C.E., to be exact—Eve bit into an apple.
Seeing it was good, she offered the apple to Adam, and he also took a bite. Whereupon Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened, and they realized they were naked. Ashamed at having broken God’s sole commandment not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve hid themselves when He came walking in the garden.
And the rest, of course, is history. God in His wrath decreed that henceforth man must earn his daily bread by working the earth and woman must suffer agony in childbirth. As a final punishment, He cast Eve and Adam forever out of Eden.
Prior to the fourth century, however, no one knew exactly which forbidden fruit Eve and Adam ate. Genesis records only that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was off limits; it does not specify what edible flower that tree produced.
Apples appeared in 382 because that’s when Pope Damasus I asked Saint Jerome to translate the Old Latin Bible into the simpler Latin Vulgate, which became the definitive edition of the text for the next thousand years. In the Vulgate, the adjectival form of evil, malus, is malum, which also happens to be the word for “apple.” The similarity between malum (“evil”) and malum (“apple”) prompted Saint Jerome to pick that word to describe what Eve and Adam ate, thereby ushering sin into the world.
The truth is, though, the apple is innocent, and this unjustly maligned fruit’s association with original sin comes down to nothing more than a pun.
Puns straddle that happy fault where sound and sense collide, where surface similarities of spelling or pronunciation meet above conflicting seams of meaning. By grafting the idea of evil onto the word for apple, Saint Jerome ensured that every time we recall Adam and Eve’s fateful disobedience in the garden we are reminded of the fruit of a deciduous tree of the rose family.
From the beginning, punning has been considered the lowest form of wit, a painful fall from conversational grace. What other form of speech is so widely reviled that we must immediately apologize for using it? “Sorry, no pun intended.”
But puns do not deserve such a bitter appellation. Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit. Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time. And the pun’s primacy is demonstrated by its strategic use in the oldest sacred stories, texts, and myths.
The Bible is replete with puns, even without Saint Jerome’s help. God fashioned Adam from adamah, Biblical Hebrew for “earth.” Eve’s ancient Hebrew name is Havvah, derived from ahavvah, which means “longing” or “love” but is also related to the words for “craving,” “mischief,” and “calamity.” Punning was even present at the foundation of the Christian faith itself, when Jesus famously said he intended to build his church upon Peter, whose name in Aramaic and in Greek means “rock.”
In Egyptian mythology, the human race sprang from the sun god Ra’s tears; though written differently, the words for “people” and “tears” had the same pronunciation (“remtj”) in ancient Egyptian. The opening verses of the Indian epic the Ramayana condemn a hunter who fells a beautiful crane with an arrow, but the same words can also be construed as praising the Hindu god Vishnu for felling the demon Ravana. And the classic Chinese philosophical text Tao Te Ching begins with a triple pun: “The way [tao] that can be talked about [tao] is not the constant Way [Tao].”
Punning folds a double knowledge into words. To make and understand a pun, you must grasp two things at once: the primary, apparently intended import of a word or phrase, and the secondary, usually subversive one.
The frisson in the ship captain’s reply to the first-class passenger who asks if he can decide for himself whether to help row the lifeboat—“Of course, sir, either oar”—lies in the friction between explicit instruction and implicit threat. The brilliance of the tagline of the Upstate New York town known for its ravines and waterfalls—“Ithaca is gorges”—lies in the simultaneous statement of geologic fact and natural beauty.
The best puns have more to do with philosophy than with being funny. Playing with words is playing with ideas, and a likeness between two different terms suggests a likeness between their referents, too. Puns are therefore not mere linguistic coincidences but evidence and expression of a hidden connection—between mind and material, ideas and things, knowing and nomenclature.
Puns are pins on the map tracing the path from word to world.
Not all puns need to reveal a concealed metaphysical truth. Some are simple homophonic homages, which must be said aloud to be fully appreciated, such as, “When you’ve seen one shopping center, you’ve seen ’em all.”
Some puns offhandedly master the art of allusion, as in the description of contentment as “the smother of invention.”
Some offer deviant definitions; e.g., “earthquake (‘ərthˌkwāk), n. a topographical error.”
And some span more than one language, to wit: the characterization of an elegant frankfurter as a “haute dog,” a form of wordplay known as macaronic (from the Latin macaronicus, meaning “jumble” or “medley”), of which puns about German sausage are generally considered the worst.
Yet even cheesy puns like these show how language is equivocal, two faced, duplicitous. Many of the simplest and most common words sound the same but have equal and often opposite meanings.
Fast means “to move quickly” (she can run fast) as well as “to be immobile” (she was stuck fast). Both meanings of cleave cohere: “to split” (the paddle cleaves the water with every stroke) and “to cling” (we cleave to hope even when all hope is gone). Off conveys both activity and idleness: when the alarm went off, I realized I had forgotten to turn it off.
What Alexander Pope said of puns—they speak “twice as much by being split”—is true of language as a whole, too.
In this respect, puns pun on human life, which is itself equivocal, two faced, duplicitous. Everything does double duty. Doors offer exits and entrances; tears come from comedy and tragedy.
James Joyce had a painting of his father’s hometown—Cork, Ireland—framed in cork and hung in his Paris apartment, a physical reminder of his notion of the world as a place “where unexpected simultaneities are the rule … Words move into words, people into people, incidents into incidents like the ambiguities of a pun, or a dream,” according to Richard Ellmann’s biography of the author of Finnegans Wake, a six-hundred-plus-page novel made up almost entirely of macaronic puns.
Nor could Shakespeare himself resist a little quibble, as puns were known in his day. There are some 200 puns in Love’s Labour’s Lost, 175 in Romeo and Juliet, 150 in each of the Henry IV plays, and upwards of 100 in Much Ado about Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well. The average number of puns in a Shakespeare play is 78.
It was all a bit much for Samuel Johnson, who wrote of the Bard’s relish for this form of wordplay, “A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation.”
But what Johnson could not stomach about puns is the essence of their appeal as wit.
In act 1, scene 4 of King Lear, the Fool taunts Lear for being, well, a fool for dividing his kingdom between his two deceitful daughters while disowning his upright third daughter. He asks Lear for an egg, for which he offers to pay the sum of two crowns.
“What two crowns shall they be?” Lear asks.
Then the puns come trippingly from the Fool’s tongue.
Having cut the egg and eaten the whites, the Fool answers that he would offer Lear both halves of the yellow yolk, an image of the sundered royal headgear. He then berates Lear for dividing his crown—his kingdom—and giving half to each of his conniving daughters. Finally, he says Lear was stupid to do what he did: “Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, / when thou gavest thy golden one away.”
In this short speech, the Fool spins four puns from a single word. First, he pivots from crown, the coin, to crown, the monarch’s headdress. Then he plays off the resemblance between a semicircle of cloven yolk and the broken arc of a golden crown, a visual pun. Then he moves from crown, a physical object, to crown, a metaphor for the realm over which a king rules. And he tops it all off by calling Lear a bonehead and numbskull, skipping from crown as sovereign domain to crown as empty patriarchal pate.
The Fool is not altogether a fool, and the pun is not merely a prankish word game.
In stooping to employ the lowly quibble, Shakespeare elevates buried or forgotten senses of words, showing how the names for things intertwine with the things themselves. When he turns aside from balder statement to pursue that golden apple, he makes surprising correlations and uncanny couplings that keep the reader toggling back and forth between meanings. The puns are both launch pads and landing strips for the Fool’s daring leaps of thought.
In poems, words rhyme; in puns, ideas rhyme. This is the ultimate test of wittiness: keeping your balance even when you’re of two minds.
During a stint on the circuit court in Bloomington, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln had occasion to serve with prosecuting attorney Ward Lamon, a man of imposing physical strength who enjoyed challenging colleagues to friendly bouts of wrestling between sessions. One day, while Lamon was wrestling an opponent near the courthouse, his exertions caused a profound rent in the seat of his pants. Being called at just that moment into court, Lamon was unable to redress the situation or effect repairs, so when he rose to address the jury his sartorial misfortune was readily apparent.
The other members of the bar, who had full prospect of Lamon’s predicament from their chairs at a long table immediately to the rear of the prosecuting attorney, drew up a subscription to raise funds for a new pair of trousers. They passed the paper down the line from lawyer to lawyer, each one signing his name and pledging some absurd amount to cover Lamon’s embarrassment.
When the paper came before Lincoln, he quietly examined it, picked up his pen, wrote his name and under it a note of regret about his inability to render any pecuniary aid: “I can contribute nothing to the end in view.”
Lincoln loved puns. Strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue with the president, Secretary of State William H. Seward happened to note a sign bearing the name of one T. R. Strong. “Ha!” Lincoln cried, “T. R. Strong but coffee are stronger.”
Upon receiving a letter from a Catholic priest asking him to suspend the sentence of a man due to hang the next day, Lincoln observed, “If I don’t suspend it tonight, the man will surely be suspended tomorrow.”
Lincoln’s wordplay offers admirable instruction in how wit actually works.
Sigmund Freud shared Lincoln’s fascination for punning, and in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious he offers a pun from Heinrich Heine’s “The Baths of Lucca” as a model for the mechanics of wit. In the story, the humble Hamburg lottery agent Hirsch-Hyacinth meets the famous Baron Rothschild and later boasts of how well the fabulously wealthy banker treated him, “just as if I were his equal, quite famillionaire.”
The coining of the term famillionaire is a vivid example of “the peculiar process of condensation and fusion” Freud believed characterized puns in particular and wit in general. In condensing famillionaire from familiar and millionaire, Heine fused two definitions into a new double meaning, a meaning all the more striking for having been distilled from such disparate sources. The combination makes two things seen together seem quite strange that are, when regarded apart, seen as quite commonplace.
All puns, including Lincoln’s, operate in this way. By bringing together two distinct senses of suspend—one legal and metaphorical, the other physical and literal—in the same mental space, Lincoln blended realms of understanding and interpretation that in conventional thinking remain separate. Through deft juxtapositions like this, puns reveal previously unseen relations among things. This reordering of ordinary associations, this upsetting of the apple cart of expectations, affords the mind sudden alternative points of view on subjects and situations it thought it knew.
The relationship between wit and knowledge is embedded in the word’s etymology. Derived from the Sanskrit verb vid, “to perceive,” wit occurs in Latin as vidēre and in Greek as idein, both of which mean “to see”; hence the word witness. Vid is also the source for the German word for wit, Witz. (The German title of Freud’s book on the subject is Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten or, literally, “Wit and Its Relationship to the Unconscious.”) And vid is the root of witan, Old English for “to know or understand,” whence comes the word wisdom.
Terms such as outwit and quick witted hint at the link between wit and knowing, while dimwit, nitwit, witless, and unwitting hint at the link between wit and not knowing. We have our wits about us if we are street smart, savvy, or shrewd. We live by our wits when we devise impromptu solutions to sticky situations or evade seemingly inevitable consequences. We can be scared out of our wits and, sadly, we can also reach our wit’s end.
The power of wit to provide insight and information is precisely what Isaac Tuxton, a scholar otherwise lost to history, celebrated in the pages of the Irish Monthly in 1877. “Delighted surprise is the common immediate sensation following fresh knowledge of an elevated or curious kind,” he wrote. “Whenever resemblances or relations are established between ideas, knowledge of some kind is communicated. Wit establishes such relations. Knowledge shows us what things are, how they are or might be, how things may be done and ends gained. Wit does the same. Therefore wit is knowledge, and communicates knowledge.”
Etymologically—and psychologically—wit and wisdom are the same thing.
Charles Lamb once remarked that, when the time came for him to leave this earth, his fondest wish would be to draw his last breath through a pipe and exhale it in a pun. And he was a prodigious punster. Once, when a friend, about to introduce the notoriously shy English essayist to a group of strangers, asked him, “Promise, Lamb, not to be so sheepish,” he replied, “I wool.”
Lamb and his close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge shared a passion for punning, not just as a fireside diversion but as a model for the witty workings of the imaginative mind. “All men who possess at once active fancy, imagination, and a philosophical spirit, are prone to punning,” Coleridge declared. He planned a spirited defense of the widely impugned practice, to be called “An Apology for Paronomasia,” the Greek word for “pun,” drawn from para (“beside”) and onomasia (“to name”).
Coleridge considered punning an essentially poetic act, exhibiting sensitivity to the subtlest, most distant relationships as well as an acrobatic exercise of intelligence, connecting things formerly believed to be unconnected. “A ridiculous likeness leads to the detection of a true analogy” is the way he explained it.
The novelist and cultural critic Arthur Koestler picked up Coleridge’s idea and used it as the basis for his theory of creativity.
Koestler regarded the pun, which he described as “two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot,” as among the most powerful proofs of “bisociation,” the process of discovering similarity in the dissimilar that he suspected was the foundation for all creativity. A pun, or indeed any instance of wit, “compels us to perceive the situation in two self-consistent but incompatible frames of reference at the same time,” Koestler argued. “While this unusual condition lasts, the event is not, as is normally the case, associated with a single frame of reference, but bisociated with two.”
For Koestler, the ability to simultaneously view a situation through multiple frames of reference is the source of all creative breakthroughs—in the sciences, the arts, and the humanities.
Isaac Newton was bisociating when, as he sat in contemplative mood in his garden, he watched an apple fall to the ground and understood it as both the unremarkable fate of a piece of ripe fruit and a startling demonstration of the law of gravity. Paul Cézanne was bisociating when he depicted his astonishing apples both as naturalistic, meticulously arranged produce and as numinous, otherworldly objects that existed only in his pigments and brushstrokes. Saint Jerome was bisociating when he alighted on malum as the perfect word to describe the actual fruit Adam and Eve ate as well as their bad taste in partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the first place.
There is no sharp boundary splitting the wit of the scientist, inventor, or improviser from that of the artist, the sage, or the jester. The creative experience moves seamlessly from the “Aha!” of scientific discovery to the “Ah” of aesthetic insight to the “Haha” of the pun and the punch line. “Comic discovery is paradox stated—scientific discovery is paradox resolved,” Koestler wrote.
Bisociation is central to creative thought, Koestler believed, because “the conscious and unconscious processes underlying creativity are essentially combinatorial activities—the bringing together of previously separate areas of knowledge and experience.”
This is precisely how wit was understood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the word was used to describe innovative thinking—something more akin to intellect or consciousness than to glibness or flippancy, a state of mind rather than just a sense of humor.
Lately, though, wit’s been whittled down to a sliver of what it really is. Witty has come to mean merely funny, and a wit is just someone with a knack for snappy comebacks.
True wit is richer, cannier, more riddling.
Wit can be visual as well as verbal, physical as well as intellectual. There is the kinetic wit of physical comedians, the serendipitous wit of scientists, the crafty wit of inventors, the optical wit of artists, and the metaphysical wit of philosophers. Wit is the faculty of mind that integrates knowledge and experience, fuses divided worlds, and links the like with the unlike. The pun is at once the most profound and the most pedestrian example of wit at work.
Coleridge never did complete his planned apology, but Lamb did write several essays on punning before he breathed his last, including one entitled “That the Worst Puns Are the Best,” in which he vigorously defended paronomasia, arguing that “the pun is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit. It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.”
Let the pun be the starting gun for this renaissance of true wit.
James Geary is the author of four previous books, including the New York Times best seller The World in a Phrase, and the deputy curator at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. A sought-after speaker and avid juggler, he lives near Boston.
Reprinted from Wit’s End, by James Geary. Copyright © 2019 by James Geary. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.