The OED defines “Pun” as “a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words that sound alike but have different meanings.” It can also be a verb meaning to “make a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word.” The choice of the word “exploit,” it seems, is no more accidental than it is strong, as the example in the OED is a pun followed by “the pigs were a squeal (if you’ll excuse the pun).” The pun is not simply exploitative of an ambiguity in language, but also of its decidedly captive audience. It is a transgressive act that, if committed, calls for an apology or an exonerative stipulation (“no pun intended”). In her exploitative moment, the “punster” (also in the OED) suddenly ejects herself from the commonly agreed upon matrix of verbal inputs (signifiers) and conceptual outputs (signifieds), temporarily upending expected patterns of signal and noise. Nevertheless, the pun is an age-old device that has not fallen out of favor within literature and comedy. Much like puns themselves, the pun as literary figure straddles two possible meanings – it is a practical joke or a strand of wit or both. This doubly dual nature suggests that the moment of the pun is that when the medium becomes “self-referential,” and thus examining it as a medium in addition to simply as a literary device promises to add to our understanding of it as well as of the concept of mediation. As medium, the pun helps construct the network between sounds and meanings, without which words would have fixed definitions and language would instead be code. In the process of negotiating the relationships between signifier and signified at the level of sound symbol, the pun also constantly breathes new life into words by making new and sometimes surreal images imaginable.

Pundeniability: Pun as Embedded Form of Literature

According to philologist Catherine Bates, the prejudice against puns runs deep in the history and study of the English language. The little we know of the etymological origin of the word “pun,” she claims, itself signals the low regard that the English language has for puns (Bates 423), citing the only piece of etymology Oxford provides: “punctilio” (from the Italian “puntiglio”), meaning “a fine or petty point of conduct or procedure.” She notes that this etymology is in question, having been removed and put back into the OED a number of times, and goes on to argue that it may have “suggested itself through its homophonic similarity to “pun,” [which is] just what a pun does” (423). Disdain for the pun is certainly deeply rooted, but so may be a reliance on the mechanics of the pun in our linguistic and cognitive systems. As it were, even the harshest critics of the pun cannot deny the utility that the pun provides for elucidating complex ideas.

Alfred Hitchcock is famously credited with the contention that “Puns are the highest form of literature,” through which he not only rejects the negative characterizations of puns, but suggests that the pun is itself a form of writing as opposed to a building block for writing. This is also to see the pun as a medium containing language as opposed to merely being a way of designating language that behaves a certain way. The distinction between puns and other forms of literature (prose, lyric, etc.), however, is not necessarily evident. What does the pun require of its readers that is specific to it? The difficulties involved with carving out pun’s territory within the realms of literary media also makes finding examples of the form a complicated task. A good starting point might then be Jacques Derrida’s pun “Différance,” as Derrida writes very deliberately and consciously on the border of literature and philosophy. His writing on Différance is thus characterized primarily by its assignment of theoretical value to the pun and not by a subscription to another form of writing.

Hear Hear: Pun as a Sound-Based Medium

As part of his larger project of complicating the understanding of the sign as a one-to-one relationship between a signifier and a signified forwarded by linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Derrida creates the term Différance by replacing the second ‘e’ in the French word for ‘difference’ (spelled the same way) with an ‘a.’ He states that Différance is “neither a word nor a concept,” yet points out that the difference “between the two vowels, is purely graphic: it is read, or it is written, but it cannot be heard” (Derrida 3). The problem that Différance reveals for the Saussurean sign, and by extension any media that contain these signs, is an ambiguity that arises when signifiers are vocalized. Homophony between words, and to a greater extent between words and non-words like Différance, means that sound-based media cleave a bottomless canyon, an inexorable ambiguity between a signifier and its potential signified(s). This is incidentally the condition of possibility for the pun.

Through Difference, Derrida unravels the unique characteristic of the pun as literary form: it is a vocal medium that must be heard in order to take effect. This is why, when writing down a pun that relies on homophonous words such as Difference and Différance, one is always faced with the annoying conundrum of which word to commit to writing (or perhaps a hyphenated hybrid of the two). In some cases, such as the following exchange from the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup (1933), puns are essentially un-writable, only existing in their true form when performed (and yet, here I am writing it down):

CHICO: What is it has a trunk, but no key, weighs 2000 pounds, and lives at the circus?

PROSECUTOR: That’s irrelevant!

CHICO: Irrelephant? Hey, that’s the answer!

There are of course other kinds of puns that are based less in vocal idiosyncrasy that are entirely understandable when read off of a page, such as Stephen Colbert’s non-copyright infringing designation of the championship football game, “Superb Owl.” But even this kind of pun activates a cognitive process of sounding out in the mind of the reader. The receiver of a pun (either written or spoken) involuntarily reconstructs the joke in her mind by cognitively sounding out each pertinent pronunciation of the word sequence (the involuntary nature of this process is at the heart of disdain for puns, as it instigates a momentary loss of control). The French phrase that English has adopted to designate certain kinds of puns, “double entendre,” is an excellent way through which to understand the mental hearing process that allows the inherently vocal medium of the pun to exist in writing as well as in speech. “Double entendre” literally means “double hearing,” but can also be construed idiomatically as “double understanding.” The expression is perhaps, then, a more accurate version of Bates’ “punctiglio” example: a pun that distills how puns in general function.

Sounds Write: Pun as Sound-Meaning-Sound Network

Derrida’s insight about the sound-based nature of puns puts us in a better position to understand what the pun qua medium contains. It allows us preliminary to acknowledge that if a medium such as prose contains words, then pun contains sounds. Furthermore, a pun always contains at least two sounds that operate somehow simultaneously, even if that simultaneity only becomes apparent in retrospect. Finally, in uniting these two sounds, the pun must also mediate the relationship there between. The final idiomatic meaning of “entendre” is “to agree;” a double entendre is thus not only a double hearing and a double understanding, but a semantic agreement between the pair of terms in question.

A pun surrounding Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido in Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid is a perfect example of how the pun links the sounds it contains together via an organizing principle. When Aeneas has made his decision to leave Dido behind in Carthage, Vergil describes the following scene on Aeneas’ ship: “He spoke, and snatched his shining sword from its sheath,/ and struck the cable with the naked blade” The instranslatable pun that the translator attempts in vain to get across with the phrase “naked blade” involves the literal and figurative meaning of the Latin word for sheath, “vagina,” referring both to the sheath of the sword Aeneas uses to set sail and to his lover Dido’s body, from which he ‘pulls out.’ Though the relation between the literal and figurative meanings of the word is fairly obvious at the level of imagery, both senses are so applicable to the situation Vergil describes that the reader inevitably reconsiders the word in context of the story and renews her understanding of it.

The pun is in this sense an ongoing process of building a network of meanings between sounds of varying degrees of similarity. Insofar as philosopher James Brown argues that the pun is a result of the “symbolic nature of language” (Brown 14), we could describe the principal content of the pun as one variety of arbitrarily assigned “rule” behind Charles Peirce’s category of symbol or legisign (Peirce 112). The words that the sounds in question speak for inherit are likewise enriched and altered in this equation, but through entirely arbitrary relations arising from their sounds and the puns that those sounds suggest.

In this sense, the pun not only deepens our understanding of language, but also plays a vital role in the life of the language. As easily as a pun can relate two homophonic words as seamlessly as in the example from Vergil, the binding relation that the pun contains and exposes will often be meaningless and, just as in the example from Duck Soup, irrelevant to the other meanings of and associations with those sounds. Yet these cases are the most fascinating, as they effectively introduce, perhaps absurd, but certainly new meanings that the interlocutor is left to find a hermeneutical rationale for in her involuntary moment of understanding.

The manifestation of pun’s ability to rearrange symbols and breathe new meanings into language is put to use most often in the pun’s natural habitat: comedy. Recent cartoons are especially prone to exploit this aspect of puns, due to their inherent detachment from certain kinds of realism. In “The Deepening,” an episode of the animated TV show Bob’s Burgers, the titular character is quickly running out of ideas to save himself from the mechanical shark into whose gullet he is about to slide. “I’m literally grasping at straws!” he shouts, motioning to grab hold of the box of plastic drink straws just out of reach. While we have all heard the expression “grasping at straws” at some point, there is nothing about it that evokes the images of drink straws in particular. By reuniting sounds with their other words, words with their other meanings, the pun not only establishes new symbols, but can make previously unimagined images thinkable (and eventually visible) as well. While the ‘visual pun’ is deserving of its own discussion, we can say here that its existence is a paradigmatic expression of the idea that “all media are ‘mixed’ media” (Mitchell 13).

— Alessio Franko

Works Cited

Bates, Catherine. “The Point of Puns” in Modern Philology, Vol. 96, No. 4 (May, 1999), pp. 421-438.

Brown, James. “Eight Types of Puns” in PMLA, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1956), pp. 14-26.

Derrida, Jacques. Differance. Frederiksberg: Det Lille Forlag, 2002.

Duck Soup. Dir. Leo McCarey. Perf. The Marx Brothers. MGM, 1933.

Mitchell, W. J. T. “Addressing Media.” What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005.

Peirce, Charles S. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover Publications, 1955.

Thompson, Greg. “The Deepening.” Bob’s Burgers. FOX. 25 Nov. 2012. Television.

Vergil. The Aeneid. Trans. A.S. Kline. 2002. Web.