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.