What about the Pun?


Puns – the Co-Incidence of Meaning


Jokes twist the boundaries of human meaning to achieve their effect. Not surprisingly, one of the favourite areas that humour hunts in, to seek out the semantic leverage it needs to create these twists, turns out to be language. More specifically, those words and sounds that carry two or more meanings. Which is why if one asks anybody about jokes, one of the first things they think of is the pun. We humans are fascinated by doubles, and as a father of twins, one quickly becomes aware of this fascination. In our particular case, the two boys are not identical (although they look quite similar) but to see the reactions of people around them is an object lesson in how intrigued we all are by doppelgangers. Because whether it is people, words or indeed objects, we humans always look for the individual differences between the physical things around us, and when two forms collide in terms of physical appearance (or sound in the case of language), our attention is guaranteed.

But just as twins are not the rule in human reproduction, puns are not the rule in human languages. Organic nature promotes diversity through sex and meiosis, and identical twins are a relative rarity. Human nature on the other hand strives to create a difference between how words sound in order to avoid the damaging ambiguity that might otherwise ensue. Different agenda certainly, but the same result: an avoidance of duplicity. Yet puns, just like twins, keep on emerging here, and there, and our fascination with them never seems to pale. 

One definition of a pun that always impresses everybody is from that once famous work by Arthur Koestler, “The Act of Creation”, where the author defines the pun as


‘Two Strings of Meaning tied together in an Acoustic Knot’.


Well, what a great one liner this is!  But does it really mean anything? Does this image really help us to understand the nature of the pun? Let us look at an example to find out. In this case, another one liner.


‘When the French say ‘thank you’, be grateful for small merci’s’


Well, using the Koestler approach to puns, we can see that there are indeed two strings of meaning here, and that they are tied together in one acoustic knot (merci’s and mercies). A knot that, in this case, is bilingual, but one that most English speakers will understand to be the French for ‘thank you’. But what leads us to spot this pun in the first place? What enables us to discover what is actually a perfectly well hidden double meaning in this drolerie? Especially when, in the spoken version, it is hidden even more, because in that case we get no help from the different spelling of the two similar sounding words (though it is still possible to put a French accent on the last word to aid recognition).

When we are presented with a joke, the first thing we do is to look at it as a puzzle that must be solved. Because we all know that to ‘get the joke’, we must look closely for some kind of a hidden twist, trick or tripwire. We also know that puns are a common source of such twists, so we are likely to look around for just such a double meaning before searching elsewhere. A search that is likely to kick off with the primary reference to the French (‘When the French say…’), and move on to the spelling anomaly in the well known phrase ‘be grateful for small mercies’, at least in the case of the written form of the quip. But the whole statement does make sense if it is understood as linking this well known expression with the fact that the French are sometimes polite, so in the spoken version, we really have to look further than this to get the joke. Because is not going to yield its double meaning unless we spot the duplicity of that acoustic knot, but we know to keep looking. Suddenly then, it all comes together, and the idea of small ‘thank you’s’ as well as ‘small mercies’ stands up in semantic silhouette. The double meaning in the last word becomes clear, and our task is finished.

Where lies the humour in this joke then? Does it lie in the economy of the pun, and the way in which two different sentences are cleverly collapsed into one? Or is it just that the pun gives us a puzzle to solve, and once the pun is spotted, we then move on to the main meaning of the joke. Which in this particular case is the rueful recognition that the French are bad mannered. So we should be grateful if we get a small thank you from the French, because a small ‘merci’ is better than nothing. A social observation that does indeed suggest we are looking at a form of joke commonly known as ‘recognition humour’. So what is the essential nature of this form of humour (given that its title is about as vague as can be)?

Humorists are keen observers of the here and now. As a result they love to capture certain kinds of observation about the world around us – ones that we all seem to know about but perhaps don’t mention to others. Observations that are then presented to us in a twisted form, which compels our attention, and gives us a challenge (every joke is a test of how ‘quick’ we like to think we are). Meanwhile, the recognition humour gives the normally unspoken logic of the situation ‘a local habitation and a name’, as Shakespeare notably declared through the words of Theseus in ‘A Midsummers Night Dream’,. Or, in full:


‘And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.


Well, this can be applied to the humorists pen just as well, because recognition humour is all about bringing half formed perceptions to the surface of our awareness, and twisting them a little to make them properly visible. The common result being a knowing laugh, as people concur with the stated thought or observation, and show that they have solved the puzzle of the pun in the process.

So, it seems that we enjoy spotting and appreciating puns. But what part does the pun actually play in the capture of the observation central to its apprehension in this case? For example, how does our one liner look without any pun at all? (To wit, ‘If the French say thank you, be grateful for small mercies’). A comment that is, which might prompt a resigned and knowing nod of the head, but likely not a smile. Restore the pun though, and the reaction can be more vigorous, because the idea now includes a puzzle and a challenge. A puzzle that can be solved, and fully appreciated, because we are all of us intrigued by double meanings, and the way in which they capture dual meanings in one simple ingenious move.

But all of this adds up to just a first simple step into the nature of the joke dynamics. A step that signally fails to lead us to any major insight about puns, recognition humour, and joke logic in general. So let us look at another pun in order to compare the two with each other, and see if anything further emerges from such a comparison.


A Personal Favourite

Here then is a personal favourite. It is basically a story that I used to tell at dinner parties (and who knows, it could be true). So the story goes that when Heathrow airport first set up a computer installation (which in those days was a big affair, with huge units staffed by several teams in a large hall), both the Brits and the Americans were invited to cooperate in this enterprise. And when the Brits arrived to take up their end of this huge hall, as employees of a UK company then known as ICL, they found that the employees of IBM had not only arrived before them but had, in addition, gone to some lengths to fix up huge letters on their end wall. Huge letters, that is, spelling out the IBM logo: ‘THINK’.

Well, this naturally became the focus of what was, after all, an inevitable rivalry during week one. The Brits were falling over themselves with laughter at this apparently simple minded ‘Can Do’ American approach to life. But they couldn’t get away from the fact that these letters dominated the whole hall, and by friday, it was causing some irritation. Nothing that a pint of beer in the local pub couldn’t solve though, because when they all returned on the monday morning, the British end of the hall also sported a set of letters. Modestly smaller, presumably to compensate for their superior meaning, these letters spelt out the nonsense word ‘THWIM’.

The Americans looked at their opposite numbers, and this new logo, with considerable puzzlement. However, the Brits pretended nothing was amiss, and carried on with their work as usual. But a keen observer would have noticed a certain measured confidence in their movements, as if they had won an arguement so convincingly that there was little point in belabouring what was evidently a master stroke.

Why were the Brits so confident? What was the joke, and would the Americans get it? What was the point of these letters spelling “THWIM”? Presumably this was an answer to the IBM logo? And yes, the answer lies in the way that you say and hear the two logos together as a pair. In addition, you certainly have to know the phrase that the pun in THWIM leads to, on its way to turning the THINK logo into an unintended pun as well (yes, it really is a  masterstroke). Have you got it yet? ‘THINK or THWIM’ (as in ‘SINK OR SWIM’)…

The net effect is bound to appeal to most Brits. Because in one swift, clever move, the THINK logo has been turned on its head, and by a counterpart that doesn’t even have the dignity of being in good English. THINK becomes the unwilling partner to THWIM, and in so doing, its own identity becomes a joke, whilst the joke word on the British side becomes a winner, being at once the perpetrator of THINK’s demise, and at the same time, the one left afloat, alive and swimming on the surface. At which point we hear the refrain of “Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.” quietly echo in the background? OK. Please excuse my patriotic glee at this point, and let’s get serious. 

There are two principal elements to this joke. Firstly, the pair of puns, and secondly, the switch in the status of the two parties caused by the use of these puns.

1) THE PAIR OF PUNS. The first element is the pun between ‘thwim’ and ‘swim’, and then, by implication, the pun between ‘think’ and ‘sink’. A pair of puns, by the way, that many find hard to spot, as it requires that the listener recognises a number of quite tricky points:

a) That the two TH- words have to go together somehow.
b) That the two words take on a different meaning when pronounced with a lisp.
c) That if you put ‘or’ between them, they suddenly make sense as the expression ‘sink or swim’.

But the successful resolution of all this just adds to the worth of the joke, because we all enjoy solving puzzles. We get a kick from solving tricky ones like this example, and another kick from our appreciation of its sheer ingenuity. Incidentally, although it is true that puns are often a cheap source of humour, this particular pair of dual sounds (think/sink and thwim/swim) is clearly an exception in terms of both their quality and their use. So in comparison with the previous example, where the meaning jumps from ‘mercies’ to ‘merci’s’ very easily, because both words sound the same, the jump between ’thwim’ and ‘swim’ is harder to make, principally because the sound is smudged across from one to the other (albeit in a familiar fashion, thanks to the natural occurrence of the lisp). And the harder the puzzle, the more worthwhile the resolution, thus leading to a greater sense of satisfaction in the case of the ‘Thwim’ story. A point that finds its confirmation in the commonly occurring double meaning that results when a French person speaks English with a strong accent, and inadvertently says what amounts to an ‘I sink’ rather than an ‘I think’ in casual conversation. The mistake can be mildly amusing, but the pun is a natural mistake, rather than the cleverly contrived tripwire of the ’Thwim’ story, and it is easy to spot, unlike the transition from ‘thwim’ to ‘swim’ and then the further transition from ‘think’ to ‘sink’. So in that context, the ‘think’ to ’sink’ of the French person can be judged as having significantly less value. Meaning that we can evaluate this pun on the basis of both its difficulty as a puzzle, and its familiarity of occurrence and use.

2) THE SWITCH IN STATUS. Secondly, there is, at least for the Brits, the pleasing switch in position between the two groups. A switch which puts the Brits in front of their ‘cousins’ the Americans, in this stormy teacup war of words. For at start of play, the visitors have the advantage: America and the IBM corporation are the giants, and they muscle in first, with a giant slogan to boot. Clearly then, the homeside are at a loss – once they have exhausted their ironic comments on each other that is. So how can they respond? What would put those jumped up ‘cousins’ in their place? Answer, a cunning verbal slingshot that would sink the Goliath (in this case almost literally). Incidentally, we might want to call this switch of status a form of ‘debunking’, which is a well recognised colloquial category of humour. But because it is also an elevation of the competitor: the debunker; it is more than just that. Rather, it is as if the downward action of the ‘debunk’ is giving the other side a corresponding lift, as with a seesaw. So instead, we might call it a ‘Status Reversal’ because this is a term that recognises the duality of such a change. (Having said this, it is nevertheless true that the primary action of the joke is the debunking of the American giant, so perhaps most of us would be happy to stick with this term, rather than getting too pedantic about it all).

The advantage of the pun to the humorist is now becoming clear. Firstly, there is the obvious fascination that a double meaning always seems to hold for us humans: puns are of intrinsic interest. But secondly, there is the use that a pun can be put to, because by pulling two strings of what are often very different meanings together in one neat move, other possibilities are opened up, such as a debunking of the French in the last example or, in this case, a status reversal between the Brits and the Americans. In other words, the pun provides the humorist with a ready made combination trick that pulls two often very different domains of meaning together in a way that can be both startling and amusing.

What then do the two examples have in common? Well, they both rely on well known phrases (‘grateful for small mercies’ and ‘sink or swim’), but they do so in different ways. In the first, the usual term for this phrase, ‘mercies’, turns into ‘merci’s’ when we see that the phrase applies to the French. We know that this is a joke, and therefore look for the catch, and given that the normal reading of the whole statement doesn’t quite make sense (why should we be grateful for small mercies if they are indeed polite?), we look for the alternative. Which still means spotting the pun, but the other meaning is familiar enough, despite being a foreign word, and then suddenly it all makes sense. Yes, given the normal French attitude to us foreigners (and between themselves for that matter), we can indeed be grateful for little thank you’s.

In the second case, which is also about our relationship with foreigners, the phrase ‘sink or swim’ helps us to resolve what in this case is a double pun. Again we look for the catch, and this time we spot that ‘Thwim’ sounds like swim, and that helps us to see how ‘Think’ turns to ‘Sink’. Because by intoning ‘Think or Thwim’ in our heads, all with the aim of resolving the puzzle, the nonsense term ‘Thwim’ turns into a word with a well defined meaning (helped along by the familiarity of the naturally occurring lisp). It is then only a short step to see that the lisp applies to the other word too; at which point ‘Think’ turns into ‘Sink’ and the application of the well known phrase becomes clear. Namely that the British wordplay has cleverly turned the brash American corporate logo into a joke, using a retort that challenges our own intellectual resources, to create a puzzle that is therefore a pleasure to solve. All of which then leads to a further status reversal twist, based on the rich fault line that always seems to lie between neighbouring cultures and races.

So in both cases, the pun turns a standard meaning (‘mercies’ and ‘THINK’) into a different meaning altogether (‘merci’s’ and ‘SINK’) by virtue of a coincidence of sound. A coincidence that is particularly impressive in the second case because ‘THINK’ does not sound exactly like ‘SINK’, so we really have to put a bit of work in if we are solve it. And given the pivotal importance of this change in meaning, we can be clear that the pun is absolutely critical to the joke in both of these examples. But does this mean that the value inherent in the pun is where the joke finds most of its effect?

At first sight, that looks to be the case. Not least because both sets of puns are ingenious, and because both represent really good puzzles that we enjoy solving. But there is more to each of these two jokes than just the pun. Because the neat poke at the French and the debunking of the powerful Americans is also a real source of amusement and, in one sense, the puns are just the means to that end. Insofar that both puns simply provide clever ways of poking fun at our neighbours that is (wordplay is always better than swordplay). And it is in that sense of being the means to an end that the pun can be said to serve a higher purpose. Because although it may provide ample satisfaction along the way, its real and primary power lies in its utility to fuse widely different domains of meaning in a single meeting point. Or to put this another way, the pun is a twist in its own right (usually on sound), but it can also serve as the means into, and the justification for another kind of twist, simply because of the neat way in which it forces two very different areas of meaning together in that one ‘acoustic knot’.

However, these insights are not enough on their own to give us a useful model of how jokes work. Meaning that without a coherent and dynamic model of how jokes work, we cannot go beyond the pun. So let us, in our quest to set up just such a model, look closely at yet another example of a pun, again on language, but this time based on visual rather than verbal similarity, and see where that takes us.