Last night Buzzfeed showed me this so-called List of the Greatest Puns of All Time.
Yesterday an atheist blog published a list of Ten Most Median Things About Easter. They didn’t make any claims that it was the best things about Easter, or the most interesting things about Easter, or pull a cracked.com and call it The Ten Most Mind-Bendingly Awesomely Epic Things About Easter You Never Would Have Expected That Will Blow Your Mind (Because You Never Learned About Them In School). It was just ten things about Easter someone wanted to mention on a blog. I appreciated the honesty.
My point being that the above list could have better been called a List of Median Puns. Good? A few of them. The greatest of all time? Don’t make me laugh. Anyone can notice that two words sound alike and make a picture of one meaning, but a truly great pun requires something more.
Some puns achieve greatness by the sheer variety of meanings. Take the famous pun about deflowering: “She offered her honor, so I honored her offer, and all night I was on ‘er and off ‘er.” It plays on “honor” and “offer” three times in three separate ways. Even so it is beaten by Samuel Johnson, going meta: “If I were punished for every pun I shed, there would not be a puny shed left of my punnish head”. That’s a four-way pun (I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt here and assume “puny shed” made sense in 18th century English).
Others are multiple puns in a different way: they are phrases of a few words, all of which get punned at the same time. For example, a magazine described aging as “the transition from frequenting hip joints to breaking them”. Likewise the claim that diarrhea is hereditary because “it runs in your jeans”. Or the famous one about the scarecrow who won a Nobel Prize because he was “outstanding in his field”. Or how “TV is called a medium because it is neither rare nor well done”.
(Fiddlemath in the comments adds the one about the father who left his cattle ranch to his boys; they named it Focus Ranch, because “focus is where the sun’s rays meet.”)
Still others are anti-puns, jokes that are hilarious precisely because they subvert a pun we’re expecting or switch puns midstream. “My wife was a strong believer in astrology. She was a Cancer, which makes it pretty ironic how she died. That’s right – chopped to pieces by a giant crab.” Mary in the comments tells the story of Ben Johnson, who claimed he could make a pun on any subject. When someone asked for a pun about the Queen, Johnson protested: “But the Queen is not a subject”.
And then there’s this absolute jewel:
A: Where do you weigh a whale?
A: At a whale-weigh station.
A: And where do you weigh a pie?
B: At a pie-w…huh, wait, no. I give up. How?
A: ♬ Soooooomewherrrrre oooooover the raaaaainbow… ♬
(think about it!)
Some puns are great because they start a chain reaction among parts of speech that shifts around entire sentence structures. Take the story of two nuns traveling in Transylvania who suddenly encounter Dracula. One shouts to the other: “Quick, show him your cross!” The second says “Oi, get off the bloody road, you lunatic!” Similar is Groucho Marx’s famous line: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” (It took me about five years to get that one)
Some puns are great through sheer endurance. You know Gandhi, right? And you know how he walked barefoot everywhere, making his feet extremely hardy? And you know how he fasted all the time, making him thin and frail and also giving him terrible breath? Well, that made him a…wait for it…super-calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.
And this isn’t even the longest one I know! That honor goes to the story of famed Arabic conductor Mustafa al-Badr. Badr was charged with leading a New York Philharmonic production of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Unfortunately, this symphony has bass parts at the very beginning and the very end, but none in between, making the bassists very bored. During practice they used to sneak out and head to the local pub while the rest of the orchestra did their thing, making it back a few short minutes before they had to start up again for the end of the piece. When the day of the concert came around, they decided to try the same strategy. To make sure they had enough time, they took a big piece of rope and tied together Badr’s music, forcing him to unravel each page before moving on and slowing his conducting considerably. It was a good plan, but when they made it to the pub they got really, really drunk, and they were visibly incapacitated by the time they made it back to the concert hall. Just as the bass part began, two of the bassists, totally sloshed, fell unconscious. A concert-goer live-blogged the conductor’s travails as “BADR’S UP, BOTTOM OF THE NINTH, SCORE TIED, BASSES LOADED WITH TWO MEN OUT.”
Still other puns aren’t so long in themselves, but they require a lot of background knowledge to work. Anyone who’s studied Latin knows that most words decline – that is, they change their form based on what role they’re serving in the sentence. A token English example would be “Me” (object) vs. “I” (subject), but where English has very few of these words, in Latin virtually all words except for certain numbers work this way. One of those numbers is six (Latin: sex). So the joke in my high school Latin class used to be: “A good Latin student never declines sex”.
The pun that gets my nomination for greatest pun of all time fulfills several of these categories simultaneously. It works on multiple words, it alters grammatical structure, it’s multilingual, and it requires esoteric background knowledge – and it’s gratifyingly historical.
According to the legend, Sir Charles Napier, British general in India, reported his conquest of the Indian province of Sindh (which was against direct orders to stay put) with the single-word telegraph “Peccavi” – Latin for “I have sinned” but in this case carrying the double meaning of “I have Sindh”.
Too bad it probably isn’t true. It’s a good pun anyway.