10 Pun-derful Facts About Puns

Suzanne McBride // SMCB Studio
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.

10 Words and Phrases That Came From TV Shows

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Television can be a hotbed of creativity (or mediocrity, depending on who you ask). But it's not just characters and storylines writers are coming up with—they also coin words. Here are 10 surprising words that were invented thanks to TV.

1. POINDEXTER

While this term for a studious nerd might seem very 1980s, it actually comes from a cartoon character introduced on TV in 1959. In the series Felix the Cat, Poindexter is the feline’s bespectacled, genius nephew, supposedly named for Emmet Poindexter, the series creator’s lawyer.

2. EYE CANDY

This phrase meaning any thing or person that offers visual appeal but not much substance originally referred to such a feature of a TV program. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it first appeared in 1978 issue of a Louisiana newspaper called The Hammond Daily Star: “Sex … is more blatant ... ‘Eye candy,' as one network executive calls it.” Ear candy is slightly earlier, from the title of a 1977 album by Helen Reddy, while arm candy is later, from 1992.

3. RIBBIT

Think frogs have always been known to say “ribbit”? Think again: According to the OED, this onomatopoeia might have originated on a TV show in the late-1960s. While we can’t say for sure that absolutely no one was making this frog sound before then, the earliest recorded usage found so far (according to linguist Ben Zimmer) is from a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mel Blanc voiced a character called Ribbit the Frog. This predates the OED’s earliest entry, which is from a 1968 episode of the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour: “That’s right. Ribit! .. I am a frog.”

4. SORRY ABOUT THAT

You've probably used this expression of regret more than once in your life, but did you know it was popularized by Get Smart? It's one of the many catchphrases from the late 1960s TV show. Others include “missed it by that much” and “the old (so-and-so) trick.”

5. CROMULENT

Cromulent is a perfectly cromulent word, as far as the OED is concerned. This adjective invented on The Simpsons means “acceptable, adequate, satisfactory.” Other OED words the denizens of Springfield popularized are meh (perhaps influenced by the Yiddish “me,” meaning “be it as it may, so-so,” from 1928 or earlier), d’oh (the earliest recorded usage is from a 1945 British radio show), and embiggen, which first appeared in an 1884 publication by English publisher George Bell: “Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? … The people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

6. FIVE-O

The OED’s earliest citation of this slang term for the police is from a 1983 article in The New York Times, although it was probably in use long before that. The moniker comes from Hawaii Five-O, which premiered in 1968. In the show, five-o refers to a particular police unit and apparently was named in honor of Hawaii being the 50th state.

7. GOMER

While the word gomer has been around since the year 1000 (referring to a Hebrew unit of measure), the sense of someone stupid or inept comes from the inept titular character in the 1960s show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s also a derogatory name among medical professionals for a difficult patient, especially an elderly one.

8. COWABUNGA

Sure, the 1960s surfing slang might have regained popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s due to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, but it originated way before then. Chief Thunderthud, a character on the 1950s children’s show Howdy Doody would use it as faux Native American language. After that, it somehow made its way into surfer slang, hence becoming a catchphrase of Michelangelo, the hard-partying, surfing ninja turtle.

9. HAR DE HAR

The next time you want to laugh in a sarcastic, old-timey way, thank Jackie Gleason for popularizing har de har via his iconic 1950s show, The Honeymooners.

10. SPAM

So how in the world did spam, originally the name of a canned ham, come to mean junk email or to inundate with junk emails or postings? Chalk it up to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The food Spam (which stands for either “spiced ham” or “shoulder of pork and ham”) was invented during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. Fast forward 40-some-odd years and the British sketch comics were singing incessantly about it. This apparently was the inspiration for the computer slang that came about in the early 1990s.

38 Word Usage Mistakes Even Smart People Make

iStock
iStock

English vocabulary is full of pitfalls that you might not be aware of. Don't let them trip you up.

1. INVARIABLY

If something happens invariably, it always happens. To be invariable is to never vary. The word is sometimes used to mean frequently, which has more leeway.

2. COMPRISE/COMPOSE

A whole comprises its parts. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The U.S. comprises 50 states. But people tend to say is comprised of when they mean comprise. If your instinct is to use the is … of version, then substitute composed. The whole is composed of its parts.

3. FREE REIN

The words rein and reign are commonly confused. Reign is a period of power or authority—kings and queens reign—and a good way to remember it is to note that the g relates it to royal words like regent and regal. A rein is a strap used to control a horse. The confusion comes in when the control of a horse is used as a metaphor for limits on power or authority. Free rein comes from such a metaphor. If you have free rein you can do what you want because no one is tightening the reins.

4. JUST DESERTS

There is only one s in the desert of just deserts. It is not the dessert of after-dinner treats nor the dry and sandy desert. It comes from an old noun form of the verb deserve. A desert is a thing which is deserved.

5. TORTUOUS/TORTUROUS

Tortuous is not the same as torturous. Something that is tortuous has many twists and turns, like a winding road or a complicated argument. It’s just a description. It makes no judgment on what the experience of following that road or argument is like. Torturous, on the other hand, is a harsh judgment—“It was torture!”

6. EFFECT/AFFECT

When you want to talk about the influence of one thing on another, effect is the noun and affect is the verb. Weather affects crop yields. Weather has an effect on crop yields. Basically, if you can put a the or an in front of it, use effect.

7. EXCEPT/ACCEPT

People rarely use accept when they mean except, but often put except where they shouldn’t. To accept something is to receive, admit, or take on. To except is to exclude or leave out—“I’ll take all the flavors except orange.” The x in except is a good clue to whether you’ve got it right. Are you xing something out with the word? No? Then consider changing it.

8. DISCREET/DISCRETE

Discreet means hush-hush or private. Discrete means separate, divided, or distinct. In discreet, the two Es are huddled together, telling secrets. In discrete, they are separated and distinguished from each other by the intervening t.

9. I.E./E.G.

When you add information to a sentence with parentheses, you’re more likely to need e.g., which means “for example,” than i.e., which means “in other words” or “which is to say ...” An easy way to remember them is that e.g. is eg-zample and i.e. is “in effect.”

10. CITE/SITE

People didn’t have as much trouble with these two before websites came along and everyone started talking about sites a lot more than they used to. A site is a location or place. Cite, on the other hand, is a verb meaning to quote or reference something else. You can cite a website, but not the other way around. If you’re using site as a verb, it’s probably wrong.

11. DISINTERESTED/UNINTERESTED

People sometimes use disinterested when they really mean uninterested. To be uninterested is to be bored or indifferent to something; this is the sense most everyday matters call for. Disinterested means impartial or having no personal stake in the matter. You want a judge or referee to be disinterested, but not necessarily uninterested. 

12. FLOUT/FLAUNT

Are you talking about showing off? Then you don’t mean flout, you mean flaunt. To flout is to ignore the rules. You can think of flaunt as the longer showier one, with that extra letter it goes around flaunting. You can flout a law, agreement, or convention, but you can flaunt almost anything.

13. PHASE/FAZE

Phase is the more common word and usually the right choice, except in those situations where it means “to bother.” If something doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t faze you. Faze is almost always used after a negative, so be on alert if there is an isn’t/wasn’t/doesn’t nearby. 

14. LOATH/LOATHE

Loath is reluctant or unwilling, while to loathe is to hate. You are loath to do the things you loathe, which makes it confusing, but you can keep them clear by noting whether the word has a "to be" verb on one side and a to on the other (he is loath to, I would be loath to), in which case loath is correct, or it can be substituted by hate (I loathe mosquitoes), in which case you need the e on the end.

15. WAVE/WAIVE

The word wave is far more frequent than waive and has a more concrete meaning of undulating motion. It’s often used for waive, "to give something up," perhaps because it fits well with the image of someone waving something away. But when you waive your rights, or salary, or contract terms, you surrender them. You can think of the extra i in waive as a little surrender flag in the middle of the word.

16. INTENSIVE PURPOSES

Intensive is a word that means strong or extreme, but that’s not what’s called for in this phrase.  To say “practically speaking” or “in all important ways” the phrase you want is “for all intents and purposes.”

17. GAUNTLET/GAMUT

Run the gauntlet and run the gamut are both correct, but mean different things. Running the gauntlet was an old type of punishment where a person was struck and beaten while running between two rows of people. A gamut is a range or spectrum. When something runs the gamut, it covers the whole range of possibilities.

18. PEEK/PEAK

This pair causes the most trouble in the phrase sneak peek where the spelling from sneak bleeds over to peek, causing it to switch meaning from "a quick look" to "a high point." If you imagine the two Es as a pair of eyes, it can help you remember to use peek for the looking sense.

19. FORTUITOUS

Fortuitous means by chance or accident. Because of its similarity to fortunate, it is commonly used to refer to a lucky accident, but it need not be. Having lightning strike your house and burn it down is not a lucky event, but according to your insurance company it will be covered because it is fortuitous, or unforeseen.

20. REFUTE

To refute a claim or an argument doesn’t just mean to offer counterclaims and opposing arguments. That would be to respond or rebut. To refute is to prove that a claim is false. If you refute, the disagreement should be over because you’ve won. If someone accuses you of not having paid for something, you refute the accusation by producing the receipt.

21. INSURE/ENSURE

These words are easy to confuse not only because they sound alike, but because they both have to do with guarantees. To ensure is to make sure something does or doesn’t happen. To insure is to use a more specific type of guarantee: an insurance policy.

22. DISPERSE/DISBURSE

Disperse is more common and has a wider range of meaning than disburse. To disperse is to scatter, separate, or sprinkle around. To disburse is only to give out money.

23. FLAK/FLACK

Not many words in English end with ak, but flak does because it’s a shortening of a German word: fliegerabwehrkanone (anti-aircraft gun). Flak is artillery fire, and by metaphorical extension, criticism. The less common flack is for a publicist or someone who tries to drum up attention for a person or product.

24. ALL RIGHT/ALRIGHT

Though alright spelled as one word is beginning to be accepted by a few style guides, it is still considered an error by most. Write it as two words.

25. BATED/BAITED

The bated in the expression bated breath is related to abated. The breath is reduced, or almost held, in anticipation. It is not baited like a fish hook.

26. ILLUSION/ALLUSION

Illusion is the more common word and usually the one you want. An illusion is a false impression, something that seems real, but isn’t. Allusion is mostly used in literary contexts. It is a hint at something else, or a pointer to other work, such as a character name that refers back to a Shakespeare play.

27. FLOUNDER/FOUNDER

To flounder is to flop around clumsily, like a fish on land. It can be used metaphorically for inconsistent or unproductive behavior. That’s why it’s easy to confuse with founder, which means to sink or fail. If a business is floundering, there’s still a chance to turn things around, but if it’s foundering, it’s best to cut your losses.

28. HEAR, HEAR/HERE, HERE

When you want to give enthusiastic approval, the correct expression is “Hear, hear!” It came from the sense of hear him out! or hear this! and not from a sense having to do with here, the present location. Here, here! is an answer to “Where should I put this cupcake?”

29. AMUSED/BEMUSED

It’s better to be amused than bemused. Amused means entertained, while bemused means puzzled or confused. It’s the difference between a smile and a head scratch.

30. HEARTY/HARDY

Hearty is for things that are warm and nourishing, like a robust welcome or an abundant feast. They have heart. Hardy is for things that are tough and durable, that can stand up to the elements and survive. They are hard.

31. DEEP-SEATED/DEEP-SEEDED

Whether you're talking about fears, habits, or emotions, the correct term is deep-seated. Talk of depth and rootedness brings the idea of planting to mind, but seeds don’t enter into this expression.

32. COMPLIMENT/COMPLEMENT

A compliment is a kind or flattering comment. Complement means to go together well. Your shoes may complement your dress, but if I remark on how sharp you look I am giving you a compliment.

33. HOARD/HORDE

To hoard is to collect and keep things in a secure or hidden place, and hoard itself keeps its stash of vowels all tucked away inside the word. A horde is a big crowd. Its vowels are scattered over the word, like a horde of tourists on a sidewalk.

34. WHO’S/WHOSE

If you can substitute in “who is” or “who has,” then the one you want is who’s, otherwise it’s whose.

35. PERPETRATE/PERPETUATE

They only differ by one letter, but perpetuate gets a whole extra syllable. That works well, because perpetuate means to keep something going (to make it perpetual) while perpetrate is to commit a single act, usually a crime.

36. PORE OVER/POUR OVER

When you study a document carefully, you pore over it (almost as if you are inspecting its tiny pores). If you were to pour something over it, like juice or coffee, that would make it much harder to read.

37. CONSCIENCE/CONSCIOUS

Conscience is a noun, and conscious is an adjective. A conscience can be cleared, or keep you awake at night, or tell you what decision to make. Conscious is a description of a state. If you’re conscious you're awake and aware.

38. ANGST/ENNUI/WELTSCHMERZ

Here you go.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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