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Monday, May 23, 2011

How The Humble Pun ‘Enabled The Rise Of Modern Civilization’

For centuries, puns have cycled in and out of popular favor: Samuel Johnson called them “the last refuge of the witless” and legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn once prevented an author from publishing a pun in his story, saying that it would “destroy the magazine.”

But as author and former O. Henry Pun-Off World Champion John Pollack points out in a new book, puns were instrumental in helping to form language, they involve complicated brain processes, and are often used in advertising and marketing. We speak to John Pollack about his new book “The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics”

Book Excerpt: The Pun Also Rises

By John Pollack

Lightning flashed, the plane bucked, and another gasp swept the cabin. I cinched my seat belt even tighter and stole another glance into the inky abyss, where I could just make out the red light on the jet’s wingtip, flapping like a bird. The plane shuddered again, and I thought of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a giant ore freighter that had snapped in two during a fierce gale when I was a boy, plunging into the icy depths of Lake Superior. The wreck had been big news in my home state of Michigan. The ship, longer than a football field, had sunk so fast that the captain didn’t even have time to radio an SOS. All hands were lost.

Tonight, at odds with the gods in this riveted aluminum tube some thirty thousand feet above the Ozarks, I tried to push that ship from my mind, but couldn’t. At least, not until what felt like a giant fist suddenly smashed the plane from above, as if an angry Zeus were trying to crush a beer can. In an instant, some two hundred yellow oxygen masks dropped from
the ceiling and the plane nosed into a sudden, steep descent.
The announcement that followed was familiar but startling
in its reality: “Please place the mask over your nose and mouth
and breathe normally.”

For the next several minutes I breathed cold, pure oxygen and
felt, in the pit of my stomach, the altitude falling away. My deci-
sion to board this flight to Austin, Texas, had been somewhat
impulsive—a journey of choice to compete in an absurd contest:
the eighteenth annual world pun championships. I had secured a
spot in the tournament only ten days earlier, after punning with
the organizer over the phone. He’d seemed reluctant to have me
fly down at first, but he needed one last competitor to fill an early
bracket. Why not a sacrificial lamb from Michigan?

Author John Pollack. (David Turnley)

Author John Pollack. (David Turnley)

Like a boxer sparring before a big fight, I’d spent the ensu-
ing week punning with my dad—like me, a proud punster—
training myself to come up with successive puns in five seconds
or less. According to the rules, I’d be paired with an opponent
and given a topic. Alternating, each of us would have five sec-
onds to respond with a pun on that topic, back and forth, until
someone missed. It would be single elimination. If I came up
blank just once, or if the judge ruled that a pun I’d made was
not actually a pun, I’d be out.

Apart from internalizing the five-second deadline, there wasn’t
much I could do to prepare that would add or detract from my
punning abilities. I’d been playing with words since I learned to talk.

In fact, my first complete sentence in life had been a pun. As
my mom tells the story, I was two and a half years old and still
struggling to string a sentence together—a skill some kids pick up
earlier. “I guess he’s just a little slow,” she thought.
Then one morning I toddled into the kitchen. “Johnny,” she
said. “Go get your shoes. I don’t want you walking barefoot.”
I looked up at her, put my hand over my mouth and giggled
impishly.

“Bears go barefoot!” I said.
And I’ve been punning ever since.
As the plane dropped, I had to concede that if my number
really was up, at least I would go down en route to the world
championships. Far better a plane crash in the sticks than a car
accident on my daily commute into the Detroit suburbs, where
I worked as a project manager at The Henry Ford museum.
My mortal concerns were, fortunately, premature. Some-
where below ten thousand feet, the plane leveled off. The cap-
tain, coming on the intercom for the first time, apologized for
the turbulence, assured us everything was under control and
told us that we could remove our masks. Apart from all those
masks dangling from the ceiling, the rest of the flight seemed
almost normal.

Two days later, I stood on a stage in an Austin park outside
the O. Henry Museum, looking out over a crowd I estimated at
five hundred people and trying to calm myself as the emcee—a
tall Texan in a straw hat—introduced me and my opponent. I
was already outmatched; my adversary was a bespectacled,
fifty-something man named George McClughan who, as the
judge pointed out, just happened to be a former champion.
Talk about a bad draw.

After reviewing the rules, the judge asked McClughan to
reach into a galvanized bucket and pull out a slip of paper,
which featured one of the hundred or so topics on a list that my
thirty-one fellow competitors and I had been given just min-
utes earlier. There had been too many to actually study, but
enough to make my mouth go dry with fear. What if I froze,
and couldn’t come up with a single pun?

The judge read McClughan’s slip aloud: “Air Vehicles.”
“George, why don’t you go ahead and start,” the judge said.
“Oh, all right,” my opponent said. He looked so relaxed just
standing there at the microphone, his shirt untucked, smiling
at the crowd. And why not? He was a seasoned champion, and
I was just some no-name walk-on from Michigan.

“If a helicopter had babies,” McClughan asked me, “would it
be a baby Huey?” It took me a moment to get it—a clever refer-
ence to both the cartoon duck and the workhorse chopper of
Vietnam. He was going to flatten me.

My mind flashed to all the aircraft hanging from the rafters
back at The Henry Ford museum. “I hope I come up with the
Wright Flying Machine,” I said.

“Wait, wait . . .” It was the judge, holding up his hand. “It’s
gotta be a puh-un.” In his Texas drawl, pun was almost a two-
syllable word.

“The Wright Brothers,” I said, “W-R-I-G-H-T—I hope I
pick the Wright Flying Machine.”

A sudden cheer swept the audience. The brawl was on.
“That was so plane to see,” McClughan said, grinning.
I struggled to come up with a response, but saved myself at
the last second with a crude pun on Fokker, the defunct Dutch
aircraft maker.

McClughan didn’t flinch. “I guess if I’m going to B-52 next
week I’m never going to C-47 again,” he said.

“Well . . . ,” I said, scanning the audience, “I’m looking for a
Liberator out there.”

McClughan toyed with me. “This guy’s pretty good,” he
said. “I was hoping he’d B-1 bomber.”

I was finding my rhythm. “You don’t think I’d take to flight,
do you?”

“I don’t know,” he answered casually. “You’re just up here
winging it.”

“U-2?”

In its economy and perfect congruence of sound and mean-
ing, a pun couldn’t get any purer. I could pun for an entire life-
time and never make a better one, ever. It was a knockout
punch, and the crowd roared. But the Irish Texan refused to
fall.

“A bear made pies for its babies,” he replied. “One Piper
Cub.”

And so it went, pun after pun, as we pummeled each
other—and the English language—without mercy. From air-
craft parts to the space program to the Battle of Britain, Mc-
Clughan always had a good riposte ready. He was, in a word,
unflappable.
“My girlfriend Mimi came over last night, and we had sex,”
he bragged. “She was a real screaming Mimi.” An obscure ref-
erence, but valid. The Screaming Mimi was a type of German
rocket artillery from World War II.
From the storm clouds of my subconscious, a Japanese war-
plane zoomed down to counterattack. “I heard that was a
Zero.”
The crowd was still cheering when the bell rang. Our seven-
minute round was over. Exhausted, I stood there for a moment,
heart pounding, mouth dry, my brain seizing up like an over-

xvi

heated engine that’s run out of oil. A little dazed at my survival,
I turned to walk off the stage.

“John! John! John!” It was the judge. “Don’t go anywhere.
You’ve got the Wright Patter, son.”

I returned to my microphone. In the case of a tie, the judge
explained, the audience got to decide who advanced to the next
round. I looked out at the audience. Whatever happened, I
could go home proud; at least I hadn’t crashed and burned.
The vote wasn’t unanimous, but when asked to cheer for the
“punster of note,” the crowd chose me. I don’t know who was
more stunned, me or McClughan. A gentleman to the last,
though, he shook my hand warmly. Almost in a stupor, I made
my way off the stage in search of the concession stand. Before
facing my next opponent, I needed a round I could really en-
joy—a cold beer.

For the next hour or so, I watched others compete and mar-
veled at their brilliant wordplay. One contestant, a pudgy fel-
low with a bristly mustache and nasal voice, was particularly
talented. By day, he worked as a paramedic. Onstage, he was a
butcher, dismembering his opponent pun by pun. Word had it
he was so competitive that he actually spent the off-season (in
this case, all year) studying videos of championships past—
gleaning technique, building up a repertoire, honing his skills.
And year by year, he’d been climbing through the ranks.
Twelve months earlier, he’d finished third.

Knowing it would be tough to advance, I just tried to savor
my first-round victory and enjoy the show. All too soon, though,
the announcer called my name and that of my next opponent.
Downing the last of my beer, I hurried up to the stage, only to
discover that my adversary was the paramedic punster
himself.

The judge announced the topic: “Historical facts about the
state of Michigan.”

I gulped.

“Just kidding,” the judge said, laughing. “The subject is
football.”

“Nice try,” the paramedic said, smirking.

And off we went, trading bad puns on every conceivable as-
pect of the game. It quickly became apparent that the para-
medic had a one-track mind. “I can’t wait until this is over,” he
said in an early exchange, “so I can find a woman with a tight
end.”

A few puns later, he returned to sex again. “Let me get back
to the subject of that would-be lady friend. One of the things
she always liked about me was the Longhorn.”

Even though we were just a mile or so from the Texas cam-
pus, a chorus of boos rippled through the crowd. Apparently, I
wasn’t the only one who was starting to understand just why
his would-be girlfriend was hypothetical.

“I think my energy is running low, and his energy is run-
ning low,” I said, trying to steer the exchange in a better direc-
tion. “We need to call up the Chargers.”

But apparently he didn’t need energy—he needed to get
laid. “Getting back to that hypothetical girlfriend,” he said, “I’d
like to Raider treasures.”

Mercifully, the bell rang. Our seven minutes were up, and I
had survived. Still, by any measure, the paramedic had gotten
off more good puns and would probably win the vote.
To my surprise, the judge asked the audience if we should
just keep going on football until one of us lost. The crowd
roared its approval.

Excerpted from THE PUN ALSO RISES by John Pollack. Copyright (c) 2011 by John Pollack. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.


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