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Why Play with Puns?

“”When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less. …. The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” Alice in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

“Play with words … is one of the most beloved practices of human beings the world over and throughout recorded time.” Walter Redfern, Puns, Basil Blackwell

“It is never enough to speak about language. One has to have a conversation with the language about what language is saying.” Carl Friedrich von Weizsacher

“Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.” Roman Jakcobson

The following quotes are from On Puns: The Foundation of Letters Ed. by Jonathan Culler, Basil Blackwell Press, 1988

Frederick Ahl, “Ars Est Caelare Artem (Art in Puns and Anagrams Engraved)”
“Creative punning is, after all, fundamental to the evolution and development of literacy in many areas of the ancient world.”

“Blindness to multiple entendre is only one dimension of our education which trains us to think (and to express ourselves) dissociatively, not associatively.”

“Figures of speech such as metaphor or irony confuse binary thought because they add the complexities of ‘both/and’ to ‘either/or’, thereby blurring the lines we like to draw between truth and falsehood, fact and non-fact.”

“… ancient critics would probably criticize our monistic thinking for generating too many artificial boundaries between things, words, and ideas, for maintaining seriousness by pretending that a word or term exists in quarantined isolation and for refusing to tolerate the intrusion of levity or of rhetorical paradox.”

“In the pluralism of words, sounds and their meaning the poet within us finds freedom from the restrictions that the theologian would apply.”

“For the ancients … if two words (or syllables) were phonetically similar, they felt obliged to postulate some relationship between them.”

“Greek and Roman writers were more sensitive to the possibilities – including what they took to be the scientific, even divine possibilities – of wordplay than we are. Through them they make language sustain all meanings its phonemes are capable of evoking.”

“Numa and Ovid use etymologies and anagrams to shuffle traditions their predecessors have bequeathed them, to subvert, reshape and redirect the reader’s thoughts. They are trying to change their societies’ perspectives on reality and thus change reality itself.”

“What we do not do, we tend to assume our predecessors either did not do or were silly to have done. If forced to acknowledge anagrams, we resort to the knee-jerk response that they are not meaningful, or are accidental. Yet the odds against the random production of even short intelligible words are substantial.”

“If we maintain that the generation of puns and other wordplays is accidental unless proved otherwise, we are following the popular tendency to exaggerate the power of chance. As Kevin McKean points out, the computer has shown us that the opposite is the case: ‘In a world as crazy as this one, it ought to be easy to find something that happens solely by chance. It isn’t.’”

“All sorts of terms can transport the mind with equal delight, provided they be woven into equally massive and far-reaching schemes and systems of relationship. … The schemes and the systems are what the mind finds interesting.” William James

Professor Jonathan Culler, “The Call of the Phoneme”
“Striking examples of wordplay in Virgil show that this was by no means a low or comic technique but a way of portraying significant relationships.”

“The relations perceived by speakers affect meanings and thus the linguistic system, which must be taken to include the constant remotivation produced by impressions of connection or similarity.”

“The use of etymologies to generate or extend reflection has a long if not altogether respectable history. Puns work the same way – lively instances of lateral thinking, exploiting the fact that language has ideas of its own.”

“The question then becomes, what happens if we try to put … the practice of punning at the center of thinking about language? Do we get a new understanding of language and what would it entail?”

Professor Avital Ronell, “The Sujet Suppositaire: Freud and Rat Man”
“The Old Testament and the Talmud pun incessantly …[creating] the paradoxical reunion of the linguistic accident with some sort of anterior substantiality.”

Professor Gregory Ulmer, “The Puncept in Grammatology”
“… that which distinguishes one language from every other one: a singular mode of making puns….” Jacques Lacan, quoted by Gregory Ulmer

“Bachelard’s most influential insight, dating back to the early thirties, was that the new physics rendered conventional thinking in philosophy obsolete. In order to overcome the obstacles to a new epistemology relevant to the new science, Bachelard argued that a pedagogy would have to be devised capable of reeducating human sensibility at its very root.”

“Derrida, with his interest in discerning and then transgressing the limits of philosophical discourse … builds an entire philosophical system on the basis of the homonym (and homophone).”

“This inventio (an aspect of Derrida’s ‘new rhetoric’) functions on the assumption that language itself is ‘intelligent’, hence that homophones ‘know’ something.”