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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pun Linguistics Part II: Nine Things I Learned at The O.Henry Pun-Off World Championships

1. The Definition of a Pun 
A pun is the humorous use of a word or words in such a way as to suggest different meanings or applications, or words that have the same or nearly the same sounds, but with different meanings.

2. What is Not a Pun
If you are talking about railroads, “you’re off track” does not give berth to a pun. Why? Because track in the cliché refers to a railroad track. The usage of the word must differ from its original meaning.

3. A Pun Can Include a Set-Up 
To wit, when paired off in Punslingers with the topic of Politics, No Names (seemingly a good category for me until you discover my opponent grew up in DC as part of a politically-connected family and currently serves as a political pundit for a major DC media outlet), I was tapped out after about a dozen rounds. My tendency was to play off specific words/phrases--we’re setting a president here/Do you C-N-N anyone out there? (a holla to my alma mater). On the other hand, my oppunent used a stalling technique to develop a story that led up to a pun-chline.

Had I employed this technique, I might have issued the following in order to stay in the game:
--Remember that character from Cheers who used to sit on his barstool drinking beer all day? Well, I suppose if they call Boston the Red Sox Nation, they could call Cheers the nomination.
BTW, I was DQ’ed when I mentioned that my 80-year-old boyfriend had electoral dysfunction because electoral had already been exercised. Rather anti-climatic.

4. Let’s Keep It Clean, People 
Use of coy double entendres is fine (as in electoral dysfunction above). But anything too blatant is met with derision at the Pun-Off, which, after all, is a family affair.

5. There's No Apologizing in Punditry
In the words of Gary Hallock, punmeister extraordinaire and emcee of the Pun-Off, a lovely pun means never having to say you’re sorry. If you have to apologize for a pun, it probably isn’t worthy. Hallock notes, “When someone adds ‘no pun intended‘ to a quip, I say, ‘none taken’ because it couldn’t have been much of a pun in the first place."

6. Pacing is Primary 
After reading my punditry on the written page after the fact, one judge, while noting its brilliance (!), suggested I simply had too many puns (63) in a 120-secord monologue. As a result, there was no time for the pungent, pregnant pause in the spoken version, quite necessary for a complex pun to sink in.

7. Stick to the Basics
It helps to pun in recognizable English. Riffs on familiar references--like States or Cheese --won the day. My piece was on Russia, or more specifically, the Soviet Union and its empire. Therefore, some puns (Soyuz, Mir-ly) may have been unrecognized or misunderstood, while other wordplay (he was good at his korbut a little off balance, a Sista‘ Solzhenitzyn moment) may have been a bit dated.

8. Brilliant Writing Doesn't Always Translate to Oral Pun Linguistics
Written punditry is different from oral punditry. He wouldn’t steppe up to the plate, when we can stair at it on the page, clearly shows punditry on the Russian theme. However, spoken, it just sounds like step. Same goes for finnished.  And Y’altallinn you, which cleverly combines Yalta and Tallinn in one fine pun, doesn’t pact the same punch in spoken English.

9. Sometimes you can be too punny for your own good.


susan said...

you wuz robbed!

is this an annual event so you can go back next year and claim your rightful reward?

Jim Ertner said...

It can require aardvark, Laura, but you have a PUNchent for punning.

Laurie A. Conley said...

Interesting post! I can see where #6 and #7 might have caused you some trouble due to pun words that people just didn't recognize. Next time stick to "Kremlin" and "borscht"! Really though, you are an exceptional punstress.