Julie Beck’s research put forth two insightful explanations as to why people might be adamantly against puns, even those with good senses of humor and a thorough understanding of wordplay.
According to John Pollack of The Pun Also Rises, “Puns are threatening because puns reveal the arbitrariness of meaning, and the layers of nuance that can be packed onto a single word.” Basically, he suggest that people who disapprove of puns can be more controlling, choosing to obey a stricter understanding of language and its usage. These people might exist in a rule-based world, so when we play with words and show them that the very foundation of our communication is fluid, it can easily upset them or drive them to deride the person using and abusing puns.
When I think about my friends who don’t enjoy my punny sense of humor, it just so happens they are from science and mathematical backgrounds instead of arts and languages. There’s some food for thought.
Now for the second theory…
According to Peter McGraw, the director of the Human Research Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, puns might be perceived as downright insulting by some people.
“They can be a demonstration of wit, of cleverness,” he says. “You’re relying on a person’s ability to parse language, to understand the nuances and complexities of words.” All shared humor comes down to a mutual understanding of what’s funny and whether somebody is in on the joke or not. That being said, McGraw theorizes that to some people, puns can come across as a “benign violation,” meaning that they threaten social norms but not in a harmful way. As a lover of puns, I have to wonder if the people who feel offended by them simply don’t understand them.
Lastly, Beck puts forward that as printing presses began to normalize and limit the written rules of languages, and as dictionaries abounded and education became standardized, our words and their meanings became restricted in unprecedented ways.
Admittedly, some puns are much less funny in writing, or they simply don’t work. Spoken puns, however, can be severely limited by their timing, situation, and audience. Beck cites Pollack again, who says that culturally, puns may just be an “out” thing for now, but that they will come back in vogue at some point in the future. Interestingly, Pollack observes that sarcasm is a current favorite in terms of spoken humor, but that both sarcasm and puns are ways of saying one thing while meaning another. Sarcasm, however, is often ripe with negativity, while puns typically remain light and positive.
Could our dislike for puns stem from our own misery? I think we could all afford to laugh more often, even when our cheesy puns just plain stink.
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