Catholics must never let Peter’s puns out
… 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. While I feel blissful about it on some 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 wide range of fans who believe in them at all costs.
As a father, I have to say that they have been the basis of many of my most painful dad jokes. “Which part of the body dies last?” I asked my daughter one day. She shook her head in disgust and walked away as I offered, “Students.” It stopped her in her tracks. She came back and said, disappointed that she asked, “Okay, why?” “Because they die late.” His answer is not worth repeating.
In The pun goes up too, author John Pollack delves into the phenomenon of haters of puns, suggesting that those who hate puns the most are likely individuals “rules-based, guided by hierarchy, and threatened by irreverence.” He suggests that the advent of the printing press, where established spelling was needed, worked against the humble pun where it was once celebrated.
Shakespeare was a believer, and that should be 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 quite straightforward.
When Richard III announces that “Behold the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York”, he is of course playing on the fact that he is the son of the house of York and divides the good and the bad times according to the seasons. The fact that he yearns for the breaths of winter resonates with his character and foreshadows much to come. Mercutio’s death in Romeo and Juliet is made particularly poignant in a unique way when the typically comic character, with his dying breath proclaims, “ask me tomorrow and you’ll find me a serious man.”
Paranomasia is the official term for a pun and its proud history can even be traced to the Bible itself. In what is perhaps the most well-known biblical pun, Jesus plays on the word stone and stone when he announces: “I tell you also 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 that was used in the writing of the New Testament. The Old Testament is also rich in puns, although Hebrew-to-English translations can obscure a lot of puns. For the ancient Hebrews, puns were often delivered by the recording of names, especially of opponents, where a vowel could be substituted into 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 individual’s likely name was “Goel”, which means “redeemer”, and the change taunts an enemy in a subtle but effective way.
Playful puns were also often used in religious education classes, and I remember a few that have stood the test of time. “If you ever need an ark, ask me. I Noah man,” was my favorite. I appreciated my teacher’s serious face when she explained that “Moses was a connoisseur of coffee because the Hebrews made him rich.” Strangely, she was not impressed when I replied that Solomon’s Temple was easy to find. “It’s near his head,” I offered obligingly.
What all of this shows us of course is the richness and complexity of language and the power of communicators to use language intelligently and creatively. We are constantly bombarded with information in the age of mass technology, where fake news competes with fun facts, haters compete with influencers and news feeds on many platforms. A love of language, even one expressed through the simple complexity of puns, compels us to stop, even for a moment, to reflect on the medium we use to communicate. It is a useful tool that we can apply in general.
If we can pause when we interact, think more carefully about the words we use, we have a better chance of being heard and understood. We just need an open mind.
(Turcotte is president and vice-chancellor of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College at the University of British Columbia.)