Issue 7 |

Modern puns: More than just some antics

by on June 13, 2016

Anyone who is asked how much a polar bear weighs knows it is exactly enough to break the ice. Likewise, if an individual has knowledge of Greek mythology and needs a powerful cleaner, Ajax may prove to be the strongest “Grease-remover” (get it?). Whether a playful alteration of words deals with two newly acquainted individuals or an advertising tactic, clever wordplay and puns can strike up conversations, attract attention, and create memorable catchphrases. Even so, why do clever visual depictions of wordplay in commercials and advertising campaigns grab our attention, while a corny pick-up line in an everyday setting earns only a scowl or a sigh? An original rendition of an ordinary pun seems to refurbish the delivery enough to make something old new. And with the advent of the television and lightning fast internet, eyes that would once glaze over staring at the dials of a radio now have the opportunity to glaze over while watching a rainbow cat fly through space. A visually oriented culture appreciates visual stimuli; the complexities of language are lost on an untrained ear. While understanding a pun requires substantial linguistic capacity, its presentation, whether heard or visually demonstrated, determines an audience’s reaction to its level of wit, and whether it is greeted with a grin or—more often than not—a grimace.

To begin, punning seems to be inherent to human interaction. In his book, The Pun Also Rises, John Pollack states that from the Epic of Gilgamesh to cuneiform tablets unearthed in Mesopotamia, ancient literature proves that where there is language, there is meaningful malarkey. Perhaps not as divisive as once it was—Pollack also notes that ancient Babylonian royalty would literally riddle to the death—, the pun has seen its value ebb and flow throughout the various phase changes of history even as language in which they, the puns, are embedded, has developed. For example, without the Norman conquest, speakers of English today would be clueless to the meaning of the double entendre. Defined simply as “double meaning”, double entendre is of French origin and exemplifies the give-and-take associated with the evolution of a language. As cultures interact, languages mingle, and had William the Conqueror never set foot on English soil, the “English” language of today would lack words such as buffet, beef, bouillon, brioche, and braise. Additionally, an English reading of faux pas (pronounced “foe-pa”)—without any knowledge of French pronunciation—would result in a conversation of the feet of Vulpes vulpes (‘fox paws’), rather than a social misstep. English has always been a system of barter, and the verbal transactions lend a new meaning to the concept of language acquisition—not only mentally developing the ability to communicate, but also physically adding words and speech patterns from neighboring dialects.

As previously mentioned, all languages exhibit a knack for nicking original meanings in order to create a more silly syntax. The reason for this lies in a common characteristic shared by most organisms capable of communication: the brain. The sensory central of the body processes every morpheme and phoneme that vibrates down the ear canal and enters into the brain via the vestibulocochlear nerve, organizing them into their denotative cubbyholes, while creating a semantically pleasing meaning. “On the most basic level,” says Pollack, “our ability to use language requires the brain to process a stream of sounds, subdivide that stream into discrete segments associated with words of a given language, then associate those words with the relevant concepts in mentalese for interpretation”. When the brain encounters a phrase or word, such as a pun, that carries a double meaning specific to the primary language spoken, it must make a decision based on the context of the conversation. For instance, does your friend’s exclamatory remark at a baseball game (“DUCK!” ) truly validate her love for feathered fowl, or should you immediately dive behind a bleacher because the batter just hit a line drive into the stands? An individual from another country placed in the same situation may have an altogether different response. They might look upwards and wonder why stupid Americans must always be so dramatic. When a brain does not understand a colloquialism or the given information, the joke may have “flown over their head.” However, the gist may hit them shortly afterwards. Because humans interact, and because meaning can often be misconstrued, misunderstandings lead to wacky situations on gameshows (for example, the popular American TV program, Whose Line is it Anyway?) and slapstick comedies (The Three Stooges), which flourish because of it.

Why then, if punning is intrinsic to human nature, does conversation with word play come across as annoying and lame? The amount of language competence necessary to understand a pun should fascinate an audience, but instead, when someone asks whether a joint degree should visit a rheumatologist or a drug dealer, exasperation overpowers awe. On one hand, “if our brain fails to sort out the ambiguity, the pun fails” (Pollack, 2011, p. 52). But on the other hand, if the brain comprehends the intended humor, it can then determine the funniness of the quip, which varies from person to person. Yet the verbal pun, in this present era, has lost its lexical legitimacy.

What has changed since, say, William Shakespeare’s extensive use of punning in plays? The purpose for punning has evolved, says Pollack: “…Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights punned because puns helped engage and entertain audiences, many of which included illiterate but clever tradespeople whose ears were highly attuned to jokes, innuendoes and double meanings”.  Missing a pun could mean missing the entire purpose of a speaker’s actions or thoughts: an illiterate audience relied on verbal cues.

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Does this mean Shakespeare singlehandedly murdered the pun? Not necessarily. With the rise in literacy and the standardization of syntax, verbal communication began to conform, losing its plasticity. Language is still capable of producing connotative conundrums, but the uniformity detracts from their efficacy. Being tired of the same old jokes may classify them as dealing with bikes or cars, but those categories are so worn out they need a nap.

Aware of their customers’ repetitive slamming of the mental snooze button when confronted with a pun, companies who wish to advertise their products effectively have gone to great lengths to find the right mix of imaginative and interesting. Luckily for big business, the pun’s standing as the lowest form of humor provides a sturdy foundation on which creative advertisers can build. A good example of how advertising thrives on producing visual representations of common idioms, puns, and wordplay is almost any commercial produced by Geico, the second largest auto insurance company in the United States. There is one commercial in particular that references the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” a clever rhyme that suggests others’ negative opinions cannot do an individual any harm. The commercial alludes to this truism and inverts it, asking, “Did you know words really can hurt you?”  In it, a cowboy rides off into the sunset, only to be upended by a large, hovering The End. And yes, literal giant words at head level can hurt an oblivious individual. Whether such “punny” commercials invoke extensive eye rolling or resentful chuckles, the use of humor to sell a product has a positive effect on viewers. Renske van Enschot and her colleagues, in their study of customer attitudes towards verbo-pictorial rhetorical figures in commercials and ads, suggest:

Instead of communicating straightforwardly…advertiser [sic] often choose an aesthetically appealing, more oblique way of presenting their message…If it is nice, pleasant, or fun to process the advertisement, this positive feeling can lead to a positive attitude towards the ad and subsequently towards the brand or product.

If the ad interests customers by offering a fresh perspective on an old idea, the product to which it is associated will also earn the same attitude. Furthermore, a recent study by Francois A. Carrillat, and published in the Journal of Advertising, discusses the influence sponsors have on the event with which they are involved. For example, the ever-popular Doritos Super Bowl commercials recently combined cute dogs, Doritos, and a reconfiguration of  the saying “you sly dog” to create a playful scenario in which three dogs stand on each other’s shoulders, and whilst garbed in a trench coat, attempt to purchase tortilla chips from a grocery store they are not allowed to enterundefined.

It is safe to say some people watch the “Big Game” solely for the commercials that appear between plays. Advertisers know this and pay a lot of money for mere minutes of airtime. Why? Because they know they are ensured a massive audience to which they can present their product. As a result, the National Football League benefits by making money and by being connected with fantastic commercials. In turn television ratings skyrocket, promoting channels associated with major sporting events. To reiterate, satirized linguistic exploitation delivers a broad base on which advertisers can “go to town”.

Though these commercials may be enjoyable, not all media shares the same playful attitude. Unfortunately, with a constant stream of visual stimulation, particularly aversive visual stimulation, at our fingertips, our nails may break more often than anticipated. Paulo Ricardo Giron and Rosa Maria Martins de Almeida studied the effects of visual stimulation on college students, finding a correlation between aversive visual material and increased anxiety, in addition to decreased attention span and working memory.

Because cell phones and laptops are both portable and powerful, instant video streaming, texting, social media, and all manner of distracting technological capabilities hinder the processes of a normally functioning brain. The need for instant stimulation carries over to other aspects of life and if something is not immediately interesting, it becomes difficult to stay focused and attentive. Advertisers know this, and they give the people what they want: short, silly, and visually entertaining product endorsements that rely less on verbal complexity and more on appealing images.

Verbal puns may be a dying breed, but entertaining visual puns are all the rage. However, the switch from verbal to visual may have a large impact on the brain.  The occipital lobe kicks into overdrive, making sense of the bombardment of images, while the language-processing centres dry up and wither away (figuratively, of course). By constantly focusing on images, one becomes desensitized to spoken words. The intricacies of diction—such as puns and their double meanings—are lost. This lack of understanding prolongs the processing of meaning and the intended joke loses its potency because its effects were not fast-acting.

Perhaps a resurgence of verbal punning is the cure for an overly visually-stimulated culture. Perhaps the more booing and verbal abuse directed at a punster, the better, because puns engage the mind and require acute neural activity, an interruption in the otherwise spoon-fed 21st century brain. Viewable puns may elicit a more favorable reaction from spectators, but spoken puns engage their mental faculties without them even noticing, restimulating the mind with something other than a cat doing backflips. Therefore, go and make punsters of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Pun, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Carrillat, François A., Paul J. Solomon, and Alain d’Astous. “Brand Stereotyping And Image Transfer In Concurrent Sponsorships.” Journal Of Advertising 44.4 (2015): 300-314. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

Giron, Paulo R., de Almeida, Rosa Maria Martins. “Influence of Aversive Visual Stimulation on Attention, Working Memory, and Anxiety in University Students.” Psychology and Neuroscience 3. 1 (2010): 109-115. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

Pollack, John. The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics. New York: Gotham, 2011. Print.

van Enschot, Renske, Hans Hoeken, and Margot van Mulken. “Rhetoric In Advertising: Attitudes Towards Verbo-Pictorial Rhetorical Figures.” Information Design Journal 16.1 (2008): 35-45. PsycINFO. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

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