The Subjectiveness of Puns

I’ve been reading John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises, which is a better book than the limp title implies. The book doesn’t quite live up to its subtitle about explaining “How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and made Wordplay More Than Some Antics”, and it inexplicably fails to mention the short story in which Isaac Asimov put forth a great theory about where jokes come from and why people groan at puns. Pollack also describes live pun contests, which sound like the sorts of pun cascades that mark the point at which I escape online comment threads. (I like puns, or at least don’t mind them, but every pun cascade is somehow the exact same cascade every time.) Well, it’s his fun.

But there’s a lot of punning going on, and talk about puns throughout their historical traces. One of them particularly delighted me so I thought I’d share it; it’s from the reign of King Charles II of England:

As the story goes, when the king was told that his jester, the playwright Charles Killigrew, could pun on any subject, he issued a challenge and commanded that Killigrew “make one on me”.

Instantly, Killigrew quipped that this was impossible, because “the king is no subject”.

I like it, certainly, and yet it still leaves the question whether this is actually a pun or just shifting between senses of a word.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

3 thoughts on “The Subjectiveness of Puns”

  1. Nah, that’s a play on words. Puns use words that SOUND like they fit the sentence, but humorously don’t. I saw a good one the other day…
    ‘Frog parking only. All other vehicles will be toad.’
    *Groans and smacks head hard enough to leave a dent.


    1. I’m not sure that I can quite agree with you, even though I’m also not perfectly happy with calling Killigrew’s line a pun. It seems to me that making use of shifting senses of the same word — taking “the same word” to be just the same spelling, even though you can have cases where two or more words converged in spelling despite retaining separate meanings, with cleave and cleave an obvious case — can be a viable pun.

      How would you characterize “Cleopatra said, `I am not prone to argue’?”


      1. The difference is that the two senses of “subject” are not two words that happen to have the same pronunciation; they are the very same word used in two contexts. The meaning is essentially the same.


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