The Chandos portrait of pun master William Shakespeare held by the National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo from Wikimedia

Catholics must never let puns Peter out

  • October 14, 2022

… you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.
-- Matthew 16: 18

I have indulged in a passion for puns throughout my career. Despite feeling gleeful about this on one level, I also remember an army of English literature professors intoning that puns were the lowest form of wit. While there are legions of people who deeply oppose puns on principle, there is an equally vast array of fans that believe in them at all costs.

As a father, I have to say that they have been the staple of many of my most painful dad jokes. “What part of the body dies last?” I asked my daughter one day. She was shaking her head in disgust and walking away as I offered: “The pupils.” That stopped her in her tracks. She walked back and said, disappointed with herself for asking, “Okay why?” “Because they die late.” Her response doesn’t bear repeating.

In The Pun Also Rises, author John Pollack delves into the phenomenon of pun haters, suggesting that those who most loathe them are likely individuals who are “rules-based, driven by hierarchy and threatened by irreverence.” He suggests that the advent of printing, where established spelling was needed, worked against the humble pun where once it was celebrated.

Shakespeare was a believer, and that should be good enough for most of us. Many of his most-famous puns are admittedly bawdy in nature and not appropriate for this venue, but some are straight-forward enough.

When Richard the Third announces that “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York,” he is of course punning on the fact that he is the son of the House of York and dividing good and bad times according to the seasons. The fact that he longs for the blasts of winter resonate with his character and foreshadow much that is to come. Mercutio’s death in Romeo and Juliet is made especially poignant in a unique way when the typically comic character, with his dying breath proclaims, “ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”

Paranomasia is the official term for a play on words and its proud history can even be traced to the Bible itself. In what is perhaps the best-known Biblical pun, Jesus plays on the word for Peter and stone when he announces: “I also say to you that you are Peter (Petros or stone) and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Here the pun plays on the Greek which was used in the writing of the New Testament. The Old Testament is equally rich in word play, even though translations from Hebrew to English can obscure a great many puns. For the ancient Hebrews, puns were often delivered through the recording of names, especially of adversaries, where a vowel might be substituted in the recording of the name to produce an entirely different meaning. One example that comes to mind is in Judges 9. Here reference is made to Gaal Ben Ebed, Gaal meaning “loathsome son of a slave.” The likely name of the individual was “Goel,” meaning “redeemer,” and the change mocks an enemy in a subtle but effective way.

Playful puns were often used in religious education classes as well, and I can remember a few that have stood the test of time. “If you ever need an ark, ask me. I Noah man,” was my favourite. I appreciated my teacher’s serious face when she explained that “Moses was a coffee connoisseur because Hebrews it for added richness.” Strangely she wasn’t impressed when I replied that it was easy to find Solomon’s Temple. “It’s near his head,” I offered helpfully.

What all of this shows us of course is the richness and complexity of language and the power of communicators to use language in clever and creative ways. We are constantly assailed by information in an age of mass technology, where fake news competes with fun facts, haters compete with influencers and news streams at us across many platforms. A love of language, even one that is expressed through the simple complexity of word plays, forces us to pause, even if it’s just for a moment, to consider the medium we use to communicate. It’s a useful tool that we can apply in general.

If we can pause when we interact, reflect more closely on the words we use, we stand a better chance of being heard and understood. We just need an opun mind.

(Turcotte is President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia.)

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