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10 Pun-derful Facts About Puns

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Suzanne McBride // SMCB Studio

Puns can be divisive: Some find them irresistible, some find them groan-worthy. And while newspaper readers may appreciate clever wordplay in a headline—say, “Big Rig Carrying Fruit Crashes on 210 Freeway, Creates Jam,” or one of The New York Post’s seemingly endless Anthony Weiner puns—most people don’t drop puns in everyday conversation.

But for others, punning is a way of life. Pun competitions challenge wordsmiths to come up with as many great puns as they can on the fly in front of an audience. And they aren’t for the faint of heart, as author Joe Berkowitz found out over the course of writing Away With Words, his new book about the world of competitive punning. Here are ten facts we learned from the book about puns and the art of wielding them competitively.

1. PUNNING IS ANCIENT.

Making puns “crosses all major languages and cultures in history,” John Pollack, an international punning champion and the author of a historical look at the phenomenon, The Pun Also Rises, told Berkowitz. In San Juan Chamula, Mexico, a tradition of verbal duels called k’ehel k’op, which often revolves around puns, dates back to Mayan times. Traditional Palestinian weddings have featured pun-heavy oral poetry duels for centuries.

2. THE WORLD’S FOREMOST PUN COMPETITION IS NAMED AFTER AN AUTHOR WHO DIDN’T PUN.

The largest and most prestigious pun competition is the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, held every year in Austin, Texas. You’d think the reference to the famous short story writer would nod to his affinity for puns, but in fact, there’s not a lot of evidence he liked them at all. “Although he did name one of his stories ‘A Midsummer Knight’s Dream,’ the author’s work is largely pun-free,” Berkowitz writes. During the course of writing the book, he visited the O. Henry Museum in Austin, where the Pun-Off is held, and was informed that the connection between puns and the author O. Henry is quite tenuous. “Between you and me, he was not a huge punner,” a tour guide told him. “That connection was made between the museum and the Pun-Off early on because it was held here, and it just stuck.”

3. THERE ARE FOUR DIFFERENT KINDS OF PUN.

There’s the homophonic pun, in which two words sound the same but mean something different. (“Czech” and “check,” for instance.) Then there’s the homographic pun, in which two words sound different but are spelled the same. (Like a bass player versus a bass fish.) There are also homonymic puns, in which the words both sound and are spelled the same. (Berkowitz’s example: “I felt unsettled inside so I had an evening out.”) And last, there’s the portmanteau, a combination of two other words. (Like “brunch.”)

4. AT THE PUN-OFF, THE RULES ARE SERIOUS BUSINESS.

The O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin—a competition Berkowitz calls “the Olympics of pun competitions”—has strict rules. Only honest-to-goodness puns are accepted. You can’t just throw in a phrase related to a topic if it doesn’t have the necessary wordplay to qualify as one of the four types of pun. “If the topic is railroads, we will not accept anything like, ‘I hope we stay on track,’” Pun-Off organizer Gary Hallock told Berkowitz by way of explanation.

There are two competitions wrapped into the O. Henry Pun-Off: "Punniest of Show" and "Punslingers." In the former, competitors perform their own two-minute routine on any topic they want, cramming in as many puns as possible. These monologues are judged by a panel on originality, performance, and wit. "Punslingers," meanwhile, is a rapid-fire, head-to-head tournament in which punners exchange wordplay on randomly chosen topics as fast as possible. Each competitor gets a maximum of five seconds to think of their next pun, and whoever runs out or gets three strikes (attempted puns the judges deem invalid) first loses. The longest this particular event has ever lasted was a grueling 48 minutes of puns relating to numerical phrases like “three’s a crowd.”

5. ENGLISH IS A GREAT LANGUAGE FOR PUNS.

English speakers already have a leg up when it comes to puns. For one thing, it’s got a whole lot of words. The Oxford English Dictionary estimates that there are around a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language. English has borrowed words from so many languages that there are a wide variety of potential puns that wouldn’t otherwise be available, like “soirees” and “sore eyes.”

English also doesn’t have declensions, so the endings of words don’t change based on what part of the sentence they’re in. “The apple” stays the same whether it’s a direct object or the subject of a sentence, in other words, which is not the case for languages like German or Russian. (English uses word order to convey the difference instead.) So “saw” can be both a verb or a noun, no matter where in the sentence it falls. As in, “The blind carpenter picked up his hammer and saw.”

6. SHAKESPEARE LOVED POOP PUNS.

If anyone knew how great English can be for puns, it was Shakespeare. “Never mistake the Bard for someone above poop and fart jokes,” Berkowitz writes. “When Thersites of Troilus and Cressida says, ‘But yet you look not well upon him; for, whomsoever you take him to be, he is Ajax,’ it’s not just because a character is named ‘Ajax,’ but because ‘a jakes’ meant a public toilet back then.” The greatest writer in the English language, indeed.

7. FOX’S BOB’S BURGERS HAS A PUN QUOTA.

The writers of the animated series Bob’s Burgers regularly go through their own kind of mini pun competition in order to craft a series that’s unusually dedicated to puns.

That's because there are at least three points in each episode that involve puns. In the title sequence, there is always a rotating series of stores located next to the show’s titular family restaurant. These plausible companies always have punny names like I’d Hit That (a boxing gym) or That’s Improv-able Improv Theater. Later in the credits, an exterminator van always pulls up in front of the restaurant bearing a punny name like Last of the Mousehicans. And then there’s the ever-popular Burger of the Day feature, which has spawned an entire cookbook full of recipes for burgers with pun names like “Shoot-Out at the OK-ra Corral Burger (comes with Fried Okra).” To populate each episode with these running gags, the show’s writers have to include three or four pun options for each when putting together a script. Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard then hand-picks his favorites for each episode.

8. WANT TO BE A PUN CHAMPION? TRY IMPROV.

All of the winners of the O. Henry Pun-Off in the past decade have had one thing in common: a background in improv. Improv performers are used to coming up with ideas on the fly in front of an audience, and in the training process, they get extremely comfortable failing spectacularly.

They’re comfortable opening their mouths without having a good idea of what’s going to come out. As one improv-trained punster told Berkowitz, “if you get an improviser up there, they’ll be, like, ‘Well, I can just start talking and I don’t know what I’m gonna say but I’ll get there.’”

9. FOR THE BRAIN, PUNNING IS LIKE TANGLING CHRISTMAS LIGHTS.

What’s going on in your head when you’re thinking up a pun? Salvatore Attardo, an expert on the linguistics of humor, described it this way:

"A good way of representing what’s in the brain is to think of it as strings of lights on a Christmas tree. So you have one string that’s white, and those lights are all the associations of meaning. If you have ‘dog,’ you have ‘puppy’ and ‘bitch’ and all the words that are related to dogs. So that’s one string, but then you’re going to have another string that’s red and it’s ‘fog,’ ‘bog,’ ‘log’—all the associations on the sound and all the sounds that begin the same way. What is happening when you make a pun is that you’re kind of crossing the strings of lights."

So even if a certain pun feels like low-hanging conversational fruit, it's actually a pretty complicated neurological process.

10. IT’S REALLY, REALLY HARD TO TEACH A COMPUTER TO PUN.

A computer won’t be entering the O. Henry anytime soon. Software engineer Max Parke attempted to overcome this challenge by building the Punerator, a computer program designed to replicate the very human act of punning. Parke fed the program a rhyming dictionary and a data set of synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, and phrases, hoping to one day be able to get the machine to reverse engineer the pun “Iran so far away.” The process of combining words to make longer words, to turn verbs into nouns, to use words in ways that are counter to their intended meaning, was just too complicated for the algorithm. Even the best artificial intelligence is no match for a competitive punner, or even a totally average one. It’s a skill that—for now—is uniquely human.

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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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