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Dispatches From the Pun Zone

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My first girlfriend loved to laugh, but when it came to punning, she agreed with Samuel Johnson that it was "the lowest form of humor." Her attempts at negative reinforcement -- slapping my wrist when I punned, regardless of the quality of said play on words -- didn't stand a chance against a brain imbedded with double-meanings since early childhood.

Can I help it if my mom's fundamental teachings had more to do with the holiness of Abbot and Costello's "Who's on first?" than the Ten Commandments? Or that my most sacred holiday memory is of my dad surveying the turkey and trimmings on the table, munching on a chip and observing, "Crispness comes but once a year"? (Not to mention the imprint of that seminal moment in the Marx Brothers' A Night At The Opera when, after Groucho refers to a contract's "sanity clause," Chico avers, "You can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Claus.")

Those of us both blessed and cursed with neuro-systems that secrete puns the way our mouths secrete saliva -- Johnson lamented that puns exerted "some malignant power over [Shakespeare's] mind" -- face the challenge of keeping the embarrassing ones to ourselves -- "why is that baseball getting so much bigger?/It just hit me" -- while hoping the gems arise in the company of receptive audiences. Punsters also risk, of course, that their audience won't get the joke, which is so often my mom's experience that she's going to call her memoir, I Laugh Alone.

O. Henry Pun-Off World Champion John Pollack's new book The Pun Also Rises lives up to its ambitious subtitle, How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics. Surveying and savoring the etymology, history and richness of puns, he shows that they have served purposes from the humorous to the momentous for many of the great thinkers in human history, from Plato to Shakespeare to Kant, who, his last name notwithstanding, could.

Pollack explains that puns' appeal arises from "the brain's ability to quickly recognize the incongruous interpretations and catch the unexpected secondary meanings that imbues [puns] with humor."

Puns themselves can have multiple meanings as well as unintended consequences. Shakespeare couldn't have known that his sun/son pun -- "Now is the winter of our discontents/made glorious summer by this son of York," would, centuries later, unleash the camping-store slogan "Now is the winter of our discount tent" or the art exhibit entitled, "Now is the discount of our winter tents."

There's nothing like being in the business of writing and reading headlines to deepen one's cerebral wordplay grooves. Except in the gravest situations, why write a straight headline when you can pun? Who could begrudge the New York Post -- infamous for the grisly "Headless Body in Topless Bar" -- when it bannered "Taps for Fred Astaire" upon the hoofer's passing? I waited years for a newsprint shortage so "Pulp Friction" could see the light of day. And last night, listening to NPR's To The Point, I pictured its excellent host Warren Olney toiling under a tiny cone of light inside a glass broadcast booth. In an instant, I was transported into the pun-zone, linking to this Roy Orbison tune to reinforce the head, "Olney the Lonely."

Following in Dr. Johnson's ill-directed footsteps, long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn famously said that publishing a pun would "destroy the magazine." Yet all these years and countless puns later -- including last week's "Loose leafs" post, "Battle of Wits: Report from the Punderdome," -- the weekly remains the best magazine in America.

I'll continue to resist the temptation to order fax paper from the vendors at the Staples Center or ask the powers that be at Traffic Court for a status report on Stevie Winwood. But I will also endeavor to live up to the legacy of my forefathers -- actually of my one father -- for whom a pun could be simultaneously funny, moving and heroic. As my dad was wheeled in to have his heart X-rayed after triple bypass surgery, his 89 year-old brain came forth with "Aorta be in pictures." It was, in a word, heartfelt. Pun intended.

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