Terrible things done with the human language.

There was a concert in Prospect Park. The band Cake was headlining. It began to rain, a big, nasty downpour. We were getting ready to leave.

“Oh,” I said to Alan. “Oh. It really happens. We're doing it.”


“We're the someone.”

“The someone who?”

“Someone left the Cake out in the rain.”

Alan leaned over, then looked back at me from his crouch. Opened his mouth while squinting and leaning forward, chest pointing to chin. He said, as if to a particularly infractive dog, “no. No.” There must be a German word for the emotion. Empörunggelächter, disgust-laughter. Wortspielabscheu, pun-horror.

That moment. You've been tricked, the conversation betrayed. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

Do you mean to say the pun-question is not clearly settled in your minds? Let me lay down the law upon the subject. Life and language are alike sacred. A pun is primâ facie an insult to the person you are talking with. It implies utter indifference to or sublime contempt for his remarks, no matter how serious.... People that make puns are like wanton boys that put coppers on the railroad tracks. They amuse themselves and other children, but their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for the sake of a battered witticism.

But the most artful puns are so good, 10 minutes of build-up and then - well, Alan was pumping gas into his car on Atlantic Ave, and I was standing by talking. A few months ago. He tells about his pal Tom who moved to Fiji. About all the stuff they do on Fiji, how much Tom likes it. The other islands, Alan relates, you can't get everything you need. But Fiji has it all. “You know what that makes Fiji?” he asked. “No,” I said. He points to a sign hanging above the gas pumps to our right. “That makes Fiji a Full Service Island.”

“No, I'm sorry. I can't.”

But the person making the pun must defend themselves. It's part of the theater of the bad pun: “Yes. Come on.”

A long pause and exhale.

“In the rain.”

“The cake.”


Driving the highway to West Virginia, my brother told me a long story about a group of lions that had emigrated from Mexico to California, these wonderful lions suddenly appearing on the beaches of San Diego, and thus - he pointed to a sign on a truck - the lions became known as the Pacific Pride.

The pun has its defenders: Marshall McLuhan, according to a critic, saw the pun as “breakdown as breathrough” - it uncovers something in the language. Arthur Koestler called the pun “two strings of thought tied with an acoustic knot.” And Edgar Allen Poe, said, in Marginalia, “..the goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability.”

I can't pinpoint the reaction, the exact nature of Empörunggelächter. It's something learned after childhood, disgust at the simple flip of letters. The regular narrative of conversation is transformed into chaos, only to prove the cleverness of their originator. A demonstration of linguistic strength. The pun is so competitive, giving rise to ever-worse variations. Pun-delivery is sport; the recipient must also be referee, must admit his or herself bested, outclevered, and then must look around for language to incorporate, for lines to twist, words to tangle. I am responsible for perpetrating terrible puns, myself. Like the bulky frame of a museum painting, I have no choice but to profess my gilt.

.  .  .  .  .  

This was partially funded by Mark Anderson, of the first-class Booklend - a lending-library by post.




Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose. As a hobby I write. (January 14)

Rotary Dial. (August 21)

10 Timeframes. (June 20)

Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out. (April 10)

Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”. Forgot to tell you about this. (July 20)

“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. An essay for TheMorningNews.org. (July 11)

Woods+. People call me a lot and say: What is this new thing? You're a nerd. Explain it immediately. (July 10)

Reading Tonight. Reading! (May 25)

Recorded Entertainment #2, by Paul Ford. (May 18)

Recorded Entertainment #1, by Paul Ford. (May 17)

Nanolaw with Daughter. Why privacy mattered. (May 16)

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