A Pun Need Not Be Punny

See, I told you so.
Genesis chapters 2 and 3 contain a rather high density of fully articulated puns. I also think these chapters contain at least one example of an implied pun, a pun with one element represented by a lexeme and the other element implied by context. To better understand how puns function linguistically I’m beginning to attack the literature. More by a random process than a reasoned approach, I’ve started with Jonathan Culler (ed), On Puns: The Foundation of Letters (Jonathan Culler, ed.: Basil: Blackwell, 1988 online edition 2005)
Here are some snippets from Culler’s introductory essay.

Etymologies – whether sanctioned or unsanctioned by current philology – are valued for the punlike quality, as they forge unexpected connections, whose suggestiveness shimmers on the borders of concepts, threatening to transform them: Christian and cretin are the same word.( “The Call of the Phoneme: Introduction”, 2)

Perhaps more importantly, he writes two pages later,

The pun is the foundation of letters, in that the exploitation of formal resemblance to establish connections of meaning seems the basic activity of literature; but this foundation is a foundation of letters only, a foundation of marks whose significance depends on relations, whose own significative status is a function of practices of reading, forms of attention, and social convention. (4)

And his introductory essay ends,

Our most authoritative declaration of the centrality of language, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, implies the priority of meaning to event, letter, or utterance, but the essays here assembled suggest that a post-modern age may find more apt the claim of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, which focuses on the coincidences of juxtology – neither code nor chaos: ‘What but an imperfect sense of humor could have made such a mess out of chaos. In the beginning was the pun.’ (16)

After I finish Culler, I plan to read chapter 3 of Salvatore Attardo’s Linguistic Theories of Humor (Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994) 108-141, “The Analysis of Puns.” After that there are several more recent papers I think I need to review. If any of you know of one that is abnormally interesting, I’d like to hear from you.

One thought on “A Pun Need Not Be Punny”

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