Why can’t people control their punning?

We’ve all got that friend who won’t stop making bad puns while you’re trying to have a normal conversation. Well, it turns out there might be more to that conversational quirk than you think; your buddy’s casual pun habit could well be a serious neurological addiction – pathological joking or, as it’s known in the much more scary German, “Witzelsucht”.

This has been cited as both a cause and effect of physical injuries, such as strokes and brain trauma which, as one medical dictionary puts it, is “marked by the making of poor jokes and puns…at which the patient himself is intensely amused.” One person “afflicted” by the condition was told by his wife to write his wordplay down rather than saying it to her in the middle of the night. The effects of “Witzelsucht” were sighted the next morning when she discovered a notebook with fifty pages completely covered in one-liners.

What do people have against puns?

But why do people hate puns so vehemently? One writer for the New York Times felt it was because they “silence conversation before they animate it,” while China’s official media watchdog banned wordplay on the grounds of its potential to cause “cultural and linguistic chaos.”

An outright pun ban may be a pretty extreme measure to take, but it does demonstrate the severity some people have towards this most inoffensive of gag forms. The pun has been described as “the lowest form of humour,” (a quote variously attributed to eighteenth century literary titans like Dryden and Johnson) and it’s a verdict which has dwarfed the pun ever since.

Comedian Tim Vine, whose stock-in-trade is pun-laden one-liners, may be one of the UK’s top funnymen, but when a public vote crowned one of his exports as the funniest joke of the Edinburgh festival in 2014, it drew nothing but ire from some sections of the press. But if the joke won the public vote in the first place, surely it must have something going for it, right?

In praise of the pun

Some say that puns are the low hanging fruit of humour, and Vine’s winning joke – “I decided to sell my Hoover … well it was just collecting dust” – wasn’t exactly picked from the height of comedy. Yet, critically revered comedians such as Steven Wright (sample gag: “I went to a restaurant that serves “breakfast at any time”. So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.”) and the late Mitch Hedberg excelled at this sort of one-liner. This may well be down to their icy cool delivery, compared with the knowing way Vine sells his jokes. Yet, even on paper, many of Wright and Hedberg’s jokes look as groan-worthy as Vine’s.

Twitter has also established itself as a sanctuary for the gag-happy, with accounts like The Punning Man and Excuse the Pun racking up hundreds of daily retweets and thousands of followers. The Atlantic notes that puns are a worthy form of humour for precisely the reason some people dislike them – they may be the lowest form of humour, but they work as a competitive joke format. Contests like the monthly Punderdome 3000 and the O.Henry Pun-Off World Championships (now in its 39th year) are regular sell-outs, as well as drawing competition from all corners of the globe.

Puns in other languages

The popularity of those competitions begs the question – how do non-English speakers view puns? Eddie Izzard’s most recent tour, Force Majeure, has included shows in French and German; however, he noted that to make his act translate, he made sure that he “dumped all puns,” as well as avoiding the type of common British sayings which made up so much of his earlier shows.

One blogger has noted that “the pun presupposes a mastery of the language”, which seems about right. You need to know the ins and outs of the language you’re speaking before you can start twisting it to your own comic ends. Likewise, bilingual puns can be clumsy, however they work to illuminate linguistic quirks and similarities more than to make people laugh.

Puns are so deeply rooted in a language’s sense of meaning and syntax that directly translating them from one language to another is a near-impossible task. Buzzfeed recently highlighted one multi-lingual pun, notable for the fact it can be tweaked to work in a surprisingly large number of languages. The joke itself isn’t all that funny – like any joke, it loses its lustre when explained – but it does emphasise the way the actual word being played with changes from language to language.

So puns are unlikely to leave the comedy lexicon any time soon, but it can’t be that bad of a situation. If nothing else, it’s journalism 101 that an article like this always has to end with some form of wordplay, and I’ve never heard any complaints about my jokes not arriving on time. You could say I’m pretty pun-ctual.

I’ll get my coat.