Puns are a kind of verbal preening, usually praised more “for their ingenuity than for their humor,” as a 16th-century observer put it. Daniel Akst reviews “Away With Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions” by Joe Berkowitz.
A punning postcard from the early 20th century.PHOTO: BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
As a critic, I’ve been around the block, buster. It’s a risky business—the margins are paper-thin—so I work in my best cellar, a bomb shelter where pros can sing. The book stops here, ok? And if it won’t hold still I hit it with a pan. Is that really so novel?
As that paragraph gratingly demonstrates, puns can be irritating. Yet the vast and diverse English language practically cries out for antics of this sort, and some people are so good at it that punning has evolved into a form of competitive sport. “Way more pun competitions exist than most sane civilians might presume,” we learn from “Away With Words,” Joe Berkowitz’s diverting account of the subject. “There’s Minnesota’s Pundamonium, Orlando Punslingers, the UK Pun Championships, the Almost Annual Pun-Off in Eureka, California, and several others.”
Mr. Berkowitz, a staff writer at Fast Company, rashly immerses himself in this world over the course of a year, palling around with punsters and competing repeatedly in Brooklyn’s Punderdome and once at the exalted O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships in Austin, Texas. “The O. Henry is without a doubt the Olympics of pun competitions,” he says, while “Punderdome is their X Games.”
The narrative engine of “Away With Words” is the author’s progress through this quirky landscape, from his first anxious appearance at Punderdome right up through his star turn in Austin. The competitions require firing off puns—preferably as part of a comic narrative—on a given or chosen topic, such as vegetables or fine arts, in front of a raucous crowd. Mr. Berkowitz is no wilting flower, but the performing isn’t easy for him. Competitions involve intense time pressure and one-on-one pun-offs; if words fail you, you’re out. (The O. Henry is governed by persnickety judges; in Brooklyn, applause rules.)
AWAY WITH WORDS
By Joe Berkowitz Harper Perennial, 272 pages, $15.99
At this level, even the strangest topics provide almost inexhaustible fodder. At Punderdome’s fifth anniversary show, for example, the category is Italian food. On introduction: “I never sausage a crowd.” Want to try something weird? “I said ‘wine not’. . . because I’m a pro sicko.” About cheating to win an award: “I think I could rig a Tony.” On reproductive rights: “The government wants to put its laws on your bodies,” one punster declares. “And I don’t want ’em to put their laws-on-ya!” On the wonders of modernity: “How did scientists date anything before the carbon era?”
By now you may be reaching for the Alka-Seltzer, which illustrates the author’s problem: A little punning goes a long way, and at some point indigestion is inevitable. Mr. Berkowitz also tries readers’ patience with one or two ill-advised digressions, although his firsthand account of the dismally earnest North East Texas Humor Research Conference is a source of fun in spite of his sufferings there. Fortunately, the puns mostly come in concentrated outbursts, and Mr. Berkowitz works so furiously to entertain us the rest of the time that you can practically see the flop sweat.
“Away With Words” is peopled, moreover, by a colorful and touchingly needy cast of punsters. With their noms-de-pun (e.g., Groan Up, Lex Icon), they are tough to keep straight but, like witty strangers at a cocktail party, amusing nonetheless. Benjamin Ziek, the Babe Ruth of competitive punning, is easy to remember, “buzz-cut and built like a cross between a circus strongman and Sopranos consigliere.” The book culminates in a thrilling Texas gunfight between a contingent of Punderdome all-stars and O. Henry veterans. One of the stars, Southpaw Jones, soars with a prepared riff on birds: “Beek kind to me, don’t thrush to judgment, I’m not robin anyone, hawking anything, talon tails out of school, ducking responsibilities or emulating anyone.” In a face-off segment, punster Jerry Yan is assigned the topic of pregnancy and starts on a pious note: “Baby Jesus didn’t diaper your sins.”
One question remains: Why has punning, which is as old as language, fallen into such bad odor that most of us feel compelled to groan when we encounter it, no matter how witty the wordplay? John Pollack, in his thoughtful 2011 book, “The Pun Also Rises,” notes that punning’s popularity has long ebbed and flowed. A case in point: Puns used to flourish in headlines, including at this newspaper. Oh, for the days of “Paramount in the Dark Before the Don,” an article concerning studio jitters about a forthcoming “Godfather” film. Nowadays cooler heads prevail, in part because the news has moved online, where wordplay in headlines is death for search-engine optimization. The rapid globalization of culture may also play a role. The English writer Kazuo Ishiguro has confessed to avoiding wordplay and colloquialisms in order to facilitate the translation of his works. World trade, it seems, is taking the pun out of literature.
Ultimately, the problem may be that pun-making is a kind of preening. Puns “are more usually praised for their ingenuity than for their humor,” a 16th-century courtier’s handbook observed, and pedantic vanity will always rub people the wrong way—especially in these times of disdain for the special claims of authority.
Back in Austin, after the final O. Henry round pits one of Brooklyn’s best against a four-time national champ, Mr. Berkowitz hears talk among the sloshed New Yorkers of getting a pun tattoo. What should it say? “We can write ‘ling,’ ” suggests one wag, “and it will be an ‘inkling.’ ”
But it’s clear that a pun tattoo—the absurd made flesh—would be going too far. Mr. Berkowitz is sensitive throughout to the evanescence and contingency of punning and to the fleeting chemistry of a live pun-on-pun matchup crackling with energy. “A tattoo could never bring it back,” he writes. “You had to be there.”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.