Let's Reminisce: Puns worth sharing
By Jerry Lincecum
Oct 24, 2017
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My interest in various forms of humor started in my boyhood when we had subscriptions to the Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post.  Even after being informed that the figure of speech known as the pun has been called “the lowest form of humor,” I remain fond of it.  Having collected a bunch of examples, I was interested to discover that puns can be classified in different ways.


One common type uses pairs of words that sound alike but are not synonyms.  Comedian George Carlin came up with the phrase “Atheism is a non-prophet institution,” playing with the more common phrase “non-profit.” Another clear example: “No matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.”  However, I think the best one is a slogan: “Don't join dangerous cults, practice safe sects!”


A different strategy uses words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings and sounds.  Douglas Adams is credited with this line: “You can tune a guitar, but you can't tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.”  Here’s another of my favorites in this category: “A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.”  Isaac Asimov is credited with this one: “Did you hear about the little moron who strained himself while running into the screen door?”


I also enjoy finding multiple puns in one statement, such as: “The roundest knight at King Arthur's Roundtable was Sir Cumference. He acquired his size from too much pi.”  More complex is this one by Richard Whately; see if you can spot four puns: “Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But what brought the sandwiches there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred.”  It takes a while to digest all of that one.


A recursive pun is one in which its second part relies on our understanding of an element in the first part. For example, consider the statement “I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.”  The full effect depends on your connecting “eye doctor” with “optical illusion.” The recursive pun “Immanuel doesn't pun, he Kant,” is attributed to Oscar Wilde, who prided himself on creating all kinds of wordplay.


Visual puns, in which one or more of the pun elements is replaced by a picture, are often used in logos, emblems, insignia, and other graphic symbols.  One local plumber uses a logo that shows a commode surrounded by the slogan “Your #2 is our #1.”


A quite different approach to visual punning is concrete poetry, in which the shape of the words on the page suggests their meaning.  An early religious example of a concrete poem in English is George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” (1633), printed sideways on two facing pages, so the lines of verse would look like angels flying with outstretched wings.  Concrete poetry tries to draw attention to the placement of words in the space of the page, and also to the spaces between words, as a way of enhancing their significance.


Some of the most sophisticated puns are classified as portmanteaux (a French term meaning “suitcase”), because they combine two words, like the two parts of a folding suitcase.  In his book Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, has Humpty Dumpty explain to Alice the creation of unusual words like chortle, which combines chuckle and snort.  Recent examples include affluenza (from affluence and influenza), turducken (from turkey, duck and chicken), workaholic, and Obamacare.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  Email him at