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Monday, August 26, 2002
By Paul Ford
Terrible things done with the human language.
There was a concert in Prospect Park. The band Cake was headlining. It began to rain, a big, nasty downpour. We were getting ready to leave.
“Oh,” I said to Alan. “Oh. It really happens. We're doing it.”
“We're the someone.”
“The someone who?”
“Someone left the Cake out in the rain.”
Alan leaned over, then looked back at me from his crouch. Opened his mouth while squinting and leaning forward, chest pointing to chin. He said, as if to a particularly infractive dog, “no. No.” There must be a German word for the emotion. Empörunggelächter, disgust-laughter. Wortspielabscheu, pun-horror.
That moment. You've been tricked, the conversation betrayed. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:
Do you mean to say the pun-question is not clearly settled in your minds? Let me lay down the law upon the subject. Life and language are alike sacred. A pun is primâ facie an insult to the person you are talking with. It implies utter indifference to or sublime contempt for his remarks, no matter how serious.... People that make puns are like wanton boys that put coppers on the railroad tracks. They amuse themselves and other children, but their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for the sake of a battered witticism.
But the most artful puns are so good, 10 minutes of build-up and then - well, Alan was pumping gas into his car on Atlantic Ave, and I was standing by talking. A few months ago. He tells about his pal Tom who moved to Fiji. About all the stuff they do on Fiji, how much Tom likes it. The other islands, Alan relates, you can't get everything you need. But Fiji has it all. “You know what that makes Fiji?” he asked. “No,” I said. He points to a sign hanging above the gas pumps to our right. “That makes Fiji a Full Service Island.”
“No, I'm sorry. I can't.”
But the person making the pun must defend themselves. It's part of the theater of the bad pun: “Yes. Come on.”
A long pause and exhale.
“In the rain.”
Driving the highway to West Virginia, my brother told me a long story about a group of lions that had emigrated from Mexico to California, these wonderful lions suddenly appearing on the beaches of San Diego, and thus - he pointed to a sign on a truck - the lions became known as the Pacific Pride.
The pun has its defenders: Marshall McLuhan, according to a critic, saw the pun as “breakdown as breathrough” - it uncovers something in the language. Arthur Koestler called the pun “two strings of thought tied with an acoustic knot.” And Edgar Allen Poe, said, in Marginalia, “..the goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability.”
I can't pinpoint the reaction, the exact nature of Empörunggelächter. It's something learned after childhood, disgust at the simple flip of letters. The regular narrative of conversation is transformed into chaos, only to prove the cleverness of their originator. A demonstration of linguistic strength. The pun is so competitive, giving rise to ever-worse variations. Pun-delivery is sport; the recipient must also be referee, must admit his or herself bested, outclevered, and then must look around for language to incorporate, for lines to twist, words to tangle. I am responsible for perpetrating terrible puns, myself. Like the bulky frame of a museum painting, I have no choice but to profess my gilt.