Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Embracing the Pun, and Promoting It

As the M60 bus trundled east on 125th Street in Harlem, slow enough for me to read all the store names on a street I was unfamiliar with, one stood out, a florist named Pollen Nation. Cute, but more than cute. Memorable. Distinctive. And clever. It stuck with me, obviously, as no other Harlem store's name did. Had Pollen Nation been named S&L Flowers, would I have taken note?

How many times have we read or heard that puns are the lowest form of humor? I trust you haven't fallen for that groundless, malicious canard. Bad puns abound, but I think of them as cheap, rather than bad; puns too easily made, like the tasteless headline that appeared over a newspaper's photo of a camera shop that had burned down. "Out of Film,"it said. Or the tedious puns that arrive repeatedly in e-mailed lists, like "To write with a broken pencil is pointless."

No, I say. Puns — quality puns, at least — are not the lowest form of humor, but among the highest, involving imagination, creativity and wit. Punning is a natural act of people who like to play with words and who have the verbal dexterity to make unusual word associations. Their minds work like one-armed bandits in gambling casinos, with plums and cherries and oranges spinning madly upon someone's utterance, searching for the right combination to connect on a pun. Speaking more scientifically, imagine a brain scan of a pun in the making, all those activated and excited synapses and neurons. 

Knowing I was writing this column, with the intention of encouraging teachers to promote punning among their students, a friend asked me, "Doesn't punning have to come naturally? Can you actually teach children to pun?" Yes, I said, by exposing them to puns, analyzing good and bad ones with them, having them keep on the lookout for them, and encouraging them to pun themselves, aloud and in their writing. Puns are a wonderful aspect of language to promote, and I promise my readers who teach that by exposing your students to good puns, they will learn to pun with class. And in class.

A brief definition, so we're all on the same track: A pun is the deliberate confusion of similar words, phrases or sounds for humorous — and sometimes serious — effect. Another word for pun is paronomasia, deriving from an ancient Greek word that means "to alter slightly in naming." It's rarely used except to say that it's another word for a pun.

Sometimes a pun is on a different sense of the same word, as when in Romeo and Juliet the dying Mercutio (who can't resist a pun even in his last moments) says, "Look for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man." Or when Hamlet says, "Call me what instrument you wish, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me."

Sometimes the play is on the twist of an expected word, or part of one, as when a traffic reporter for a New York City radio station described an expressway notorious for its traffic jams as the Long Island Distressway.

Sometimes it's playing with a word or phrase from literature, as when New York Times reporter Michael T. Kaufman echoed the opening line of Moby Dick, beginning the account of his whale-watching cruise off Montauk Point, Long Island, with "Call me a schlemiel."

In those examples we see some of the crucial elements in pun-making — a rich vocabulary, including a familiarity with proverbs, expressions, clichés and other language elements that can be distorted to make a pun; and a reading background ranging from nursery rhymes, fairy tales and mythology to classic novels, plays and poetry. The more literate one is, the greater the opportunity to pun.

Unlike other kinds of humor, which may take time to devise and can be retold, a true pun is spontaneous, made for the moment, suiting only the present occasion and rarely recycled, although some puns become classics, like this one. Late in her career, the operatic singer Helen Traubel and the comedian Jimmy Durante traveled the country as a comedy and song team. On one occasion, Durante entered Ms. Traubel's dressing room unaware that she was half dressed. He left quickly and later remarked, "Nobody knows the Traubel I've seen," punning on the Negro spiritual, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."

Puns go back at least as far as the Odyssey, composed about 800 B.C. A sea goddess, seeing the shipwrecked Odysseus adrift on a raft, puns on the name of the epic (in Homeric Greek, but translatable into English as the same pun), "Poor Odysseus! You're odd I see, true to your name."

Even Jesus punned. In the New Testament (Matthew 16:18), Jesus changes Simon's name to Peter, punning on petros, the Greek word for "rock," when he says, "On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." A pun not intended for levity but to make a point.

Then there's the brief lament in verse in which the poet John Donne (1572-1631) puns on his own name, summing up what he endured after his political career was ruined following his elopement with the daughter of an influential man:

John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone

The classroom is the perfect place to acquaint students, from elementary through high school, with puns like those in this column and found every day in their daily newspaper. Actually, though, most elementary school children have already seen puns in the paperback joke and riddle books found in their school and classroom libraries — puns that for adults are lame but for kids often hilarious, like:

  • What did the farmer call the cow that had no milk? An udder failure.
  • Why are teddy bears never hungry? They are always stuffed!
  • Why are fish so smart? Because they live in schools.

Herewith, a selection of puns to share with your students, beginning with paronomasia from The New York Times, my local paper, although puns and punning headlines are available in every newspaper and magazine.

  • A Times article about people whose gardens feature rare palm trees was headlined, "With Fronds Like These, Who Needs Anemones."

  • The United States Postal Service designed two possible Elvis Presley stamps, one showing him as a young performer, the other in his later years, then asked the public to vote for the one they'd prefer to see issued. They picked the younger Elvis for the 1993 stamp. The Times's caption under a photo of the winner? "Love Me Slender."

  • When precious or semi-precious stones are set closely together on a piece of jewelry, pavement-like, so as not to show any metal underneath, they are said to be pavéd (pah VAYD), a French jewelry-making word. A New York Times advertisement for a piece of jewelry designed like this was headlined, "Pavéd With Good Intentions."

  • Recently, Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that at a meeting on the last day of his job as President Obama's senior adviser, the "avid punster" David Axelrod "offered a parting pun, urging everyone to 'plow forward' on a plan for genetically produced alfalfa."

Times writers not only quote puns, they also make them:

  • "Balloons have become a high-flying business and sell at inflated prices."

  • "Even those who prefer smooth peanut butter are now faced with a crunch."

  • "What Has 132 Rooms and Flies?" was the punning headline over a Times story about a housefly infestation in the White House. Among the reporter's puns: "The White House is bugged!" and "It's not clear why there has been so much buzz in the Obama White House."

And while you're promoting punning in the classroom, you can also show students how not to be corny, distasteful or to go for the easy pun. The New York Times's Manual of Style and Usage even has pun guidelines for writers and editors. "Puns have a place in the newspaper," the guide says, "but as a trace element rather than a staple. A pun should be a surprise encounter, evoking a sly smile rather than a groan and flattering the intelligence of a reader who gets the joke. Plays on personal names never qualify: no one will be flattered to read, say, that a pitcher named Butcher carved up the opposing team. The successful pun pivots on a word that fits effortlessly into two contexts."

But un-Timesian puns sometimes slip through the editing process. "Boies Will Be Boies," the headline over an article that appeared in The Times about David Boies, a well-known lawyer, was faulted by a Times editor in an in-house weekly critique of Times writing. "The Times does not pun on people's names," he wrote.

  • Claire Regan, an editor at the Staten Island Advance, a New York City newspaper, picked up a New York State Associated Press Association award for the headline she wrote above an article about the level of obesity in Staten Island, "Call It Fatten Island."

  • On a hardware store shelf I found a mousetrap that I had no use for at home but which for years served as a classoom motivation for a lesson on puns. It was a glue trap shaped like a Quonset hut, the ends of which one sealed after a mouse was caught. The name of the trap? Mouse-o-Leum.

While puns are most commonly employed in conversation and in newspaper and magazine headlines, we also see them — like Pollen Nation — in shop names like those I've seen in New York City: A haircutter named the Mane Event. Laundries named Spin City and All Washed Up. A coffee shop named Acute Café. A shoe repair shop, Sole Brothers. A now-extinct restaurant located across the street from New York's American Museum of Natural History whose punning name depends on an abbreviation: Tyrannosaurus Rest. And, of course, the king of all restaurant-name puns, The Dew Drop Inn. Every state in America has at least one.

If you asked your students to bring in punning shop names in your town, could they find some?

Puns are often employed in high school newspaper headlines, partly because students on their staffs tend to have sophisticated language skills; partly because writing for an audience inspires them to write more inventively; and partly because working in a group promotes having all kinds of fun. Recently, I asked members of the Journalism Education Association to submit for this column examples of headline punning in the high school paper they advise. As you will see,  some are more successful than others but all show a welcome inventiveness with language. I applaud their staffs for their initiative and creativity in creating them, and their advisers for encouraging their students to write with zip.

  • The student paper at Paradise Valley High School, in Phoenix, Ariz., headlined the review of a band called Sherwood: "Would you read this concert review? Sherwood!" (Sherwood should be read as "Sure would!")

  • When Blake Little, a student at McKinney Boyd High School, in McKinney, Tex., released during his lunch period a chicken he had hidden in his backpack, the principal chased it through the cafeteria, caught it and held it up in victory. The school newspaper's headline: "Fowl Play." The subhead: "Student prank no 'Little' matter."

  • After volcanic activity in Italy prevented students from Reno High School, in Reno, Nev. from flying directly to the U.S. after a school trip, they returned via Israel. The school paper's headline over its account of their indirect journey home: "Is[this]rael?"

  • Over a story about the school's Hellenic Club's project involving inner-city kids' letters to Santa, the newspaper at Glenbrook South High School, in Glenview, Ill. ran the headline,"Dear Santopoulos."

  • The headline over the same school's math team's winning meet: "Divide and Conquer."

  • The theme of Blair High School's yearbook, the year the Blair, Neb. school went to block scheduling: "New Kids on the Block."

Thanks, kids — and the teachers who inspire and encourage you — for having fun with language and striving to delight your readers with something different.

The pun is liberating. It says to students, you can make language do as you please. You can twist words to make them your own. You can make connections between two entirely different things and think on two planes at once. You can improvise language and play with words. Isn't that a great thing to help develop in students?

"When we make a pun, when we play with words, we are making them our own," wrote Walter Redfern whose book, Puns, is a classic analysis and appreciation of punning. "Punning appeals to those who take risks," he wrote, "but also those who expect and value their money's worth, and indeed bonuses from language." Puns, he said, result from "linguistic serendipity," depending on the unexpected utterances of others.

My favorite pun happens to be one that was uttered by my daughter Rachel, when she was 14 years old. What is so telling about it is that, although it was entirely original and serendipitous, she could not have made it had she not been learning about dictatorships in her social studies class.

I had dressed after showering and, about to put my socks on, realized my feet were still wet. Taking a wash cloth from our linen closet, I walked into Rachel's bedroom, where she was watching a TV program with her older sister Sara, sat down on her bed, and began to dry my feet.

"Is that a special towel?" Rachel asked jokingly.  

"It's a toe towel," Sara quipped.

And Rachel said, "And it was made by a toetowelitarian, right?"


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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 22nd 2011, 1:16 AM
Comment by: Craig S.
This vacation, I'm going for fun in the pun! Thanks for elevating the power of the pun...humor is a sign of a playful, agile mind and word play matters.
Tuesday February 22nd 2011, 9:56 AM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
Another happy encounter with the Green Man! Applies not just to teaching, I think. My husband has struggled for several years with cognitive issues, but when his PET scan came back "consistent with the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease but INCONCLUSIVE" we weren't sure what to think. Recently, with medication adjustments, and my recent retirement, which gives him some peace of mind, knowing I'll handle things, his sense of humor has been coming back. The other night, when the extra remote control for the television (the one I use) had been mislaid on the other side of the room, he told me, "You've been demoted." Not the first time lately that he's shown a renewed ability to pun, one of the reasons I was attracted to him when we first met 49 years ago. This gives me hope and makes me wonder about the neurological physiology involved in punning. The ability to play with language has always struck me as a sign of both intelligence and a healthy realism about the complexity of the world.
Tuesday February 22nd 2011, 10:10 AM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
Another one from my husband.

A few weeks ago our son made some brownies, and my husband ate one for breakfast, surreptitiously, in the kitchen. When he chomped down on something hard, he thought it was a nut shell fragment and threw the whole piece of brownie in the trash. Then he noticed a crown was missing from a tooth. (He recalled it later and fished the crown out of the garbage.)

Meanwhile, though, he told me about the crown, and I speculated that maybe he'd swallowed it, since he didn't know where it could be. He sat silent at least 5 minutes then said, "I have this gnawing feeling in my stomach."
Tuesday February 22nd 2011, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, thank you for this delightful, insightful article - how nice to be validated so early in the morning!

It has been said that "in order to be good at something, you have to be willing to be very bad at it for a very long time." This is especially true of creative pursuits in any area, and when one is an explorer of words, one's discoveries and inventions are verbal and often result in paragraphs, pages, poems and puns. Kids or adults who are learning to make puns need to be encouraged to take risks - to practice and experiment and make mistakes - just as they do when they are learning to play the piano, work with wood and tools, cook, repair a bike or hit a baseball with a bat. The world is endlessly entertaining and fun for people who love to play with words: Free toys! Everywhere! All the time! Woo-HOO!
Monday February 28th 2011, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Dwight W. (Abilene, TX)
I am a son of a pun(ner). Growing up, mealtimes became a competition to see who could make the last or best pun. It was often about food: “Lettuce not carrot any further.” “This chicken tastes fowl.” “This is souper!” and so on. It is nice to be exonerated instead of exhonorated.
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I had a similar problem, Dwight, with a brother who was so quick at this! One was never safe, and what is worse (or better) is that it is catching!

Isn't 'Who's on Third?' an example of this in all its magnificence?
Tuesday March 1st 2011, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
As long as I can remember, when our family had pie for dessert, if anyone said "This is good pie" my dad would look surprised and sadly respond "Oh, do you have to leave already?" This was only one of his "regulars" - there were plenty of clever one-timers as well; it was delightful to learn from him the pleasures of playing with words. If he had not died almost 30 years ago, he would have turned 100 tomorrow; I invite you all to join my siblings and me in a moment of silliness in his memory! Happy birthday, Dad - we love you.
Friday March 4th 2011, 7:58 PM
Comment by: Terri H.
There used to be a therapeutic massage place in North Hollywood, CA called Nice to be Kneaded.

Another favorite is dress shop called Damsel in Dis Dress.
Wednesday March 9th 2011, 12:15 PM
Comment by: Jeanne V.
My favorite hair salon in chicago was called Curl up & Dye.
Thursday March 10th 2011, 10:16 AM
Comment by: George P. (Farmington, NM)
I am so happy to find supporters of the pun - I had decided that, along with many other things I hold deer, such people had turned tale and run. I must admit I had never given any thought to categorizing them, but there is always another way to skin a cat. Thanks again to the toetowelitarian - I loved it!
Thursday December 29th 2011, 2:27 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Thanks so much for recognizing the pun in its simplicity!!! My dad is an avid punner. I hear puns almost every day, so I'd like to thank Bob Greenman for exalting the pun in this article.
You know, it's funny about the whole 'teachers promoting puns' affair. My English teacher in the sixth grade, who later moved to Virginia, leaving our class devastated at the loss, promoted puns. She was a fan of puns and plays on words herself, and encouraged puns, finishing short stories, rewriting endings- the works. She had us focus on O. Henry for a few weeks once, and then we saw "The Ransom of Red Chief" and "The Last Leaf" on Friday. Ransom of Red Chief was overwhelmingly popular, and kids were reading O. Henry in her class like never before. If there was any mid school class I actually looked forward too, that had to have made the list. For a bunch of teens to actually like older short stories- that has to be a miracle.

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