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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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Beyond “Buffalo buffalo”: 9 Other Repetitive Sentences From Around The World
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Famously, in English, it’s possible to form a perfectly grammatical sentence by repeating the word buffalo (and every so often the place name Buffalo) a total of eight times: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo essentially means “buffalo from Buffalo, New York, who intimidate other buffalo from Buffalo, New York, are themselves intimidated by buffalo from Buffalo, New York.” But repetitive or so-called antanaclastic sentences and tongue twisters like these are by no means unique to English—here are a few in other languages that you might want to try.

1. “LE VER VERT VA VERS LE VERRE VERT” // FRENCH

This sentence works less well in print than Buffalo buffalo, of course, but it’s all but impenetrable when read aloud. In French, le ver vert va vers le verre vert means “the green worm goes towards the green glass,” but the words ver (worm), vert (green), vers (towards), and verre (glass) are all homophones pronounced “vair,” with a vowel similar to the E in “bet” or “pet.” In fact, work the French heraldic word for squirrel fur, vair, in there somewhere and you’d have five completely different interpretations of the same sound to deal with.

2. “CUM EO EO EO EO QUOD EUM AMO” // LATIN

Eo can be interpreted as a verb (“I go”), an adverb ("there," "for that reason"), and an ablative pronoun (“with him” or “by him”) in Latin, each with an array of different shades of meaning. Put four of them in a row in the context cum eo eo eo eo quod eum amo, and you’ll have a sentence meaning “I am going there with him because I love him.”

3. “MALO MALO MALO MALO” // LATIN

An even more confusing Latin sentence is malo malo malo malo. On its own, malo can be a verb (meaning “I prefer,” or “I would rather”); an ablative form of the Latin word for an apple tree, malus (meaning “in an apple tree”); and two entirely different forms (essentially meaning “a bad man,” and “in trouble” or “in adversity”) of the adjective malus, meaning evil or wicked. Although the lengths of the vowels differ slightly when read aloud, put all that together and malo malo malo malo could be interpreted as “I would rather be in an apple tree than a wicked man in adversity.” (Given that the noun malus can also be used to mean “the mast of a ship,” however, this sentence could just as easily be interpreted as, “I would rather be a wicked man in an apple tree than a ship’s mast.”)

4. “FAR, FÅR FÅR FÅR?” // DANISH

Far (pronounced “fah”) is the Danish word for father, while får (pronounced like “for”) can be used both as a noun meaning "sheep" and as a form of the Danish verb , meaning "to have." Far får får får? ultimately means “father, do sheep have sheep?”—to which the reply could come, får får ikke får, får får lam, meaning “sheep do not have sheep, sheep have lambs.”

5. “EEEE EE EE” // MANX

Manx is the Celtic-origin language of the Isle of Man, which has close ties to Irish. In Manx, ee is both a pronoun (“she” or “it”) and a verb (“to eat”), a future tense form of which is eeee (“will eat”). Eight letter Es in a row ultimately can be divided up to mean “she will eat it.”

6. “COMO COMO? COMO COMO COMO COMO!” // SPANISH

Como can be a preposition (“like,” “such as”), an adverb (“as,” “how”), a conjunction (“as”), and a verb (a form of comer, “to eat”) in Spanish, which makes it possible to string together dialogues like this: Como como? Como como como como! Which means “How do I eat? I eat like I eat!”

7. “Á Á A Á Á Á Á.” // ICELANDIC

Á is the Icelandic word for river; a form of the Icelandic word for ewe, ær; a preposition essentially meaning “on” or “in;” and a derivative of the Icelandic verb eiga, meaning “to have,” or “to possess.” Should a person named River be standing beside a river and simultaneously own a sheep standing in or at the same river, then that situation could theoretically be described using the sentence Á á á á á á á in Icelandic.

8. “MAI MAI MAI MAI MAI” // THAI

Thai is a tonal language that uses five different tones or patterns of pronunciation (rising, falling, high, low, and mid or flat) to differentiate between the meanings of otherwise seemingly identical syllables and words: glai, for instance, can mean both “near” and “far” in Thai, just depending on what tone pattern it’s given. Likewise, the Thai equivalent of the sentence “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” is mai mai mai mai mai—which might seem identical written down, but each syllable would be given a different tone when read aloud.

9. “THE LION-EATING POET IN THE STONE DEN” // MANDARIN CHINESE

Mandarin Chinese is another tonal language, the nuances of which were taken to an extreme level by Yuen Ren Chao, a Chinese-born American linguist and writer renowned for composing a bizarre poem entitled "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den." When written in its original Classical Chinese script, the poem appears as a string of different characters. But when transliterated into the Roman alphabet, every one of those characters is nothing more than the syllable shi:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

The only difference between each syllable is its intonation, which can be either flat (shī), rising (shí), falling (shì) or falling and rising (shǐ); you can hear the entire poem being read aloud here, along with its English translation.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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