A champion punster finds hidden and significant meaning in cunning wordplay.
Pollack (Cork Boat: A True Story of the Unlikeliest Boat Ever Built, 2005, etc.), a former presidential speechwriter, was the 1995 winner of the O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off. The moderately puerile samples from that war of words, found in the introduction, should be overlooked in favor of the more sophisticated content that follows. His thesis is that puns, commonly reviled, have serious implications. After a generous definition, the author examines the etymology, neurology, anthropology and sociology of primeval gags, antique jokes and hoary wordplay. Pollack finds puns in ancient cuneiform tablets, today’s newspaper headlines, knock-knock jokes, TV comedy and movies—and, of course, in Master Shakespeare’s copious riffs. There have always been more groans than giggles from pungent critics like Sam Johnson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, but Pollack counter punches in his defense of punning, holding it to be no real mistreatment of one’s mother tongue but simply an arty vice. He provides examples of the penchant by embedding puns throughout his short text. A conjuror at this literary con game, many of his best are concealed, challenging the reader to find them all. Thus, one relevant problem is that students will long be on the alert to finding puns, present or not, in unrelated reading. Another and more perilous threat is that reviewers, those scoffing wretches, will feel challenged to pun in appraisals of this book. But, at least in this case, the pun is mightier than the “pshaw!”
A fun, cogent argument in favor of a dubious, often-damned art.