Processing Puns and Roots of Language

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Puns get a bad rap. I’ve seen a lot of people disparage the humble pun as being unworthy of attention, or even admiration. This may not seem like a big deal, but here’s why I think it matters a lot.

Puns prod at the roots of language. Wordplay is a game of understanding; It is a challenge to the listener, demanding that long buried ambiguities be unearthed. Poorly crafted puns exude smarm, but a pun well made can draw attention to the joints of ideas and language. Even a poor pun links unlike concepts with similar sounds. A well made pun links nearly identical sounding words or phrases with largely differing meanings, both of which are appropriate in context. It converts the semantics without altering the syntax. A pun sounds “the same” but it’s meaning is insane.

This is crucial. Meaning, semantics, are the roots of language. Words are building blocks sunk in our experiences, upon which other words are built. Some are buried so deep we no longer have the ability to conceptualize their absence. Puns kick at those blocks, or change them out for ones of slightly different shapes. They play with our language, our memories, our sanity.

Children make puns all the time, without meaning to. They interchange and exchange words of similar meanings and sounds, forming startling sentences. What is surprising is not that this ability persists into adulthood, but that it is so widely disparaged. Must we frolic only in the fields of memes, and not among the roots of the mountains?

So make puns, and rejoice in the clarity and flexibility and oddity of language. May your wit be Mercurial.

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