04/09/2012 12:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2012

Here Comes The Pun: Why Playful Language Matters

By the author of "The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics" [Penguin, $16.00].

On a drizzling afternoon in old London, in an age when men of a certain stature or pretension still carried swords about the city's cobbled streets, two scholars sat fireside at the Grecian coffeehouse on Devereux Court, arguing fiercely over the accent of a Greek word.

This was no mere academic dispute. At a time when philosophers, writers and scientists were spinning revolutionary ideas - Isaac Newton, among others, was a regular at the Grecian -- even single words carried gravity. Shifting that accent could transform the word's very meaning, and on such distinctions history turned, at least in the minds of those who earned their living putting quill to paper.

Perhaps the coffee was too strong that day, but tempers soon flared. Honor impugned, the two antagonists determined to settle their argument outside. Striding out into the darkening bluster of the narrow lane, they drew their blades and began to circle.

"Whatever the accent ought to have been," one chronicler wrote, "the quarrel was acute, and its conclusion grave." Indeed, the grammar of violence proved decisive as the quicker scholar -- making his final point -- ran his rival through, killing him on the spot.

So much for dual interpretations.

Of course, fierce debates over the meaning of words are as old as language itself, and continue even today; in the United States alone, there are more than 750,000 working lawyers, with thousands more passing the bar (or drinking there) every year.

One area of language that remains especially divisive is the practice of punning, and in this regard people generally fall into one of two opposing camps: they either appreciate puns as a sign of intelligence and wit, or dismiss all puns contemptuously - good and bad alike - as juvenile, foolish, or the lowest form of humor.

What such critics fail to recognize, however, is that puns and punsters were actually instrumental to the very rise of modern civilization.

According to Richard Parkinson, the British Museum's Assistant Keeper for Ancient Egypt and the Sudan, punning was deeply interwoven into the language, life and religion of the ancient Egyptians (as well as of the Sumerians, in nearby Mesopotamia).

As an example, he cites a fragmentary hieroglyphic text from around 1800 BC, in which the god Seth attempts to seduce the god Horus with a pick-up line that translates as "How fair is thy backside" or, in modern parlance (not Parkinson's) "Nice ass."

However, given the phonetic overlap between the words for backside and strength in ancient Egypt, the punster Seth could plausibly claim, in a pinch, that he was not making a cheeky double entendre but merely praising Horus' strength.

For all of their prowess as engineers and builders, though, the Egyptians only managed to take language so far. They came to the tantalizing brink of, but failed to realize, one of the most important breakthroughs in human history -- the invention of the phonetic alphabet.

Created by unknown scribes in the Sinai desert around 1700 BC, the 30-character North Semitic alphabet was a revolutionary improvement over the roughly 700 pictorial hieroglyphs then in regional use, and made writing practical and widely accessible for the first time in human history.

Consider how useful this innovation was. Originally, a pictogram of a sheep would have meant just that, a sheep. Three sheep would have represented three sheep. And for purposes of simple tallies, taxation and transactions, that worked fairly well. But as the quantity and complexity of information increased, this literalist strategy had obvious limitations. While it's easy enough to depict a few objects, how about recording large quantities, abstractions such as time and religious belief, legal contracts or the nuanced emotions of epic poetry?

Spelling words phonetically proved invaluable for such challenges. This new, powerful tool enabled people to record, preserve and transmit highly complex ideas, allowing successive generations to start accumulating knowledge at an unprecedented rate. Suddenly, after 150,000 years of relative stasis as anatomically modern humans, people started getting a lot smarter, a lot faster.

So what role did punning play in this? A catalytic one. The scribes who invented the alphabet did so by deliberate, increasingly complex punning. Essentially, they recognized that they could break apart sound, symbol and meaning to harvest phonetic components of deconstructed hieroglyphs, much as kids who tell knock-knock jokes break apart the component syllables of names and put those back to work in new, surprising ways.

It was by distilling these phonetic components to a set of basic sounds that scribes invented that first alphabet, which in time gave birth to alphabets that included -- among others -- Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Latin, Persian, Russian, English, and Sanskrit. Coincidentally, the word alphabet is itself a meld pun comprising the first two letters of the Greek sequence, alpha and beta. And while that elementary pun is certainly no homer in terms of humor, it is notable for its longevity.

In sum, the deconstruction and recombination of sound, symbol and meaning - the very essence of punning - was the key that enabled people to unlock the potential of written language. Without puns, we would have no alphabet. Without an alphabet, we would have no practical way of writing, and would have forgone all the hardscrabble progress and prosperity that writing subsequently enabled. For as Jared Diamond noted in his ground-breaking Guns, Germs and Steel, "Writing marched together with weapons, microbes and centralized political organization as a modern agent of conquest."

So the next time a critic decries puns categorically, take a moment to explain that if there were no puns, there would be no modern civilization. And that's why, as our dueling antagonists at the Grecian coffeehouse showed us, the sharpest of puns will always be more than some antics.