The definition of a pun

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Monday 4 November 2013

A few months ago, I had a very proud moment – my three year old son made his first pun. We were on our way home from a long day at pre-school: the traffic was bad, the car was hardly moving, and my son was getting bored. We tried I-spy, then a guessing game, then even I got bored so I started telling him about traffic jams and how and why they happen - anything to pass the time.

So what is the pun I hear you ask?

Well it didn’t happen until the next morning, when I had long forgotten our captivating chit-chat into the origins of road congestion, but I asked him, as I usually do, what he wanted on his toast. With a big grin on his face, he replied, “Daddy, can I have some traffic jam”.

Now, for a guy who runs a pointless blog consisting of funny pictures, regurgitated quotes and bad puns, at that moment I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I couldn’t believe it. Was this his first pun?

But I wanted to make sure, so I asked him again, leading him slightly away from the joke, “What do you want on your toast, some jam?”

He said “No, I don’t want jam, can I have some traffic jam?” His grin even bigger.

The pun confirmed, my heart breaking with unmitigated joy. Balloons fell from the ceiling, confetti popped out of the toaster, and Handel’s messiah started playing on the radio***.

So what did I do? Like any proud parent, I started telling people about my son’s first foray into puns and punnage. But here is the problem – while some of the people I told were suitably impressed (or at least made out they were) others were not so impressed, with at least two people questioning its paronomasian validity (one actually said “Not bad, although it’s not really a pun is it?”).

Now, although I am not a linguistic scholar, I thought I knew a pun when I heard one. But it turns out you can categorise puns in a whole lot of different ways.

First, there is the homophonic pun, which takes two words that sound the same but have different meanings (Atheism is a non-prophet institution), or the homographic pun, which exploits words that are spelled the same but have a different meaning (Corduroy pillows are making headlines). Then there are the compound puns (Where do you find giant snails? On the ends of giants’ fingers.), and the double sound puns (Gone Chopin, Bach in a Minuet). And this is even before getting into the chiasmus (Never let a fool kiss you, or a kiss fool you) the implied chiasmus (Times fun when you’re having flies  - Kermit the frog), or the spoonerisms, daffynitions, or the malapropisms.

So back to my son’s request for some traffic jam on his toast. Does this fit into one of the categories? Perhaps some type of compound homographic pun? I’m not so sure, but to be honest I don’t really care. It was some type of joke - deliberate, intentional, groan-worthy, and as I’ve always said:

A good pun is its own reword.

***  The balloons, confetti and music may or may not have happened.


Erin said...

I still remember my youngest son making his first pun. It was a homophonic pun. I was telling him to put on his shoes, and he started flapping his arms around at imaginary flies going "shoo, shoo".
Mind you, he was at that stage pretending not to understand a lot of what we said. Hard to believe when he starts making puns.

troysgonewalkabout said...

Eek, perhaps because of all the recent headlines to do with same-sex marriage, I at first read 'homophonic' as 'homophobic', and was thinking that listing examples of homophobic puns on your blog would be straying into dangerous territory...

Anonymous said...

I don't care what sort of pun it was, as his grandfather I think it was very clever indeed. This is, of course, a totally unbiased comment.

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