The Language Perfectionist: “Is That a Pun in Your Pocket, or…?”

It’s time for a break from my usual serious grammar and usage topics. April Fool’s Day is the ideal occasion to celebrate the pun. In fact, for many years, an annual dinner in Chicago on this date attracted punsters from across the nation.

Puns are often disparaged. But while it’s true that some are silly and juvenile, others are so complex, sophisticated, and cerebral that they might tax the brain of a Ph.D.

See if any of these specimens strike your funny bone:

  • Suburban commuting hazard: Carpool tunnel syndrome.
  • Headline: Podiatrist found guilty of callous neglect.
  • Museum announces major Andy Warhol exhibition. Kitschy coup!
  • When Martha Stewart was on trial, New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman reported on her arrival at the courthouse, where a group of supporters had assembled to greet her. “They included a man in a chef’s hat who stood with the others behind a metal barrier – one toque over the line.”
  • Some years ago, in the science magazine Omni, Scot Morris attempted to determine the best pun of all time. The winner, a favorite of several prominent writers and wordplay connoisseurs, was the following story (which had been crafted, with a colleague, by astronomer Edwin Hubble, for whom the space telescope was named). Three brothers decide to go into the cattle business. They ask their father what they should call their new ranch. He suggests the name Focus, because that’s where the sons raise meat.

Well, if you didn’t laugh, remember what diamond cutters say: “They can’t all be gems!”

Puns and wordplay are not just entertaining. America is facing a crisis of escalating illiteracy. Last year, a report by the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that students’ reading skills are stagnating or falling, and that employers routinely complain that new hires are unable to comprehend what they read or to write clearly.

How can this problem be solved? Humor is a powerful motivator. Wordplay can encourage reading and language learning at all levels. Young children love puns (“I scream for ice cream!”), and playing with words helps them increase their vocabulary and master language skills. Immigrants studying English often delight in the absurdity of its multiple meanings.

So don’t let April Fool’s Day – or any other day, for that matter – go by without laughing at a pun… or even creating one yourself.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was a direct-response copywriter. He is author of the wordplay books Cruel and Unusual Puns and Acronymania, and is writing a new book that also blends language and humor.]