A good pun is its own reword

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?
B: Where?
A: At a whale-weigh station.
B: (groan)
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.

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38 Responses to A good pun is its own reword

  1. roystgnr says:

    I’m stunned – the best conjugation/sex pun ever doesn’t actually include any form of the verb “conjugate”!?

  2. Misha says:

    if you add: “, your honor” to the end of the honor pun it becomes even better.

  3. BeoShaffer says:

    Wow, that was punny (someone was going to say it might as well be me). Many of my favorite puns are from show titles, you can get a pretty comprehensive list on TV tropes (search for Double Meaning Tittle), but I’d like to highlight Mai-Hime. The title has 5 distinct readings all of which are relevant to the actual show. Mai can be the name of the main character or the english word “my”, hime can be the Japanese word for princess or the in universe term for a magical girl, and maihime is the name of a dance that has symbolic importance in the show.

  4. endoself says:

    What does the last one gain from being in Latin? It’s only a pun in English.

    • naath says:

      It gains shortness; which is important if you are sending a telegram. Also I admit a fondness for multilingual puns.

      So I shall provide another:
      (pls to forgive my awful German)
      warum haben sie Französisch ein Ei for Frühstück? Weil ein Ei genug est!

      • Creutzer says:

        Despite or maybe because of being a native speaker of German, I don’t understand that one. (Neither sentence is actually grammatical, and I’m not quite sure what a grammatical version of the first would be. Is it supposed to mean ‘Why do they have an egg for breakfast in France’?)

        • naath says:

          Why do the French have one egg for breakfast?
          Because one egg is enough. (To save anyone else struggling with my execrable German)

          The final piece of the puzzle:
          the French for “one egg” is “un oeuf”…

  5. suntzuanime says:

    Two groups of waterfowl walk into a bar. The third one ducks.

  6. Doug S. says:

    Isaac Asimov was quite the punster…

    A Loint of Paw

    There was no question that Montie Stein had, through clever fraud, stolen better than $100,000. There was also no question that he was apprehended one day after the statute of limitations had expired.

    It was his manner of avoiding arrest during that interval that brought on the epoch-making case of the

    State of New Yorkvs. Montgomery Harlow Stein, with all its consequences introduced law to the fourth dimension.

    For you see after having committed the fraud and possessed himself of the hundred grand plus, Stein had calmly entered a time machine, of which he was in illegal possession, and set the controls for seven years and one day in the future.

    Stein’s lawyer put it simply. Hiding in time was not fundamentally different from hiding in space. If the forces of law had not uncovered Stein in the seven-year interval that was their hard luck.

    The District Attorney pointed out that the statute of limitations was not intended to be a game between the law and the criminal. It was a merciful measure designed to protect a culprit from indefinitely prolonged fear of arrest. For certain crimes, a denned period of apprehension of apprehension-so to speak-was considered punishment enough. But Stein, the D.A. insisted, had not experienced any period of apprehension at all.

    Stein’s lawyer remained unmoved. The law said nothing about measuring the extent of a culprit’s fear and anguish. It simply set a time limit.

    The D.A. said that Stein had not lived through the limit.

    Defense stated that Stein was seven years older now than at the time of the crime and had therefore lived through the limit.

    The D.A. challenged the statement and the defense produced Stein’s birth certificate. He was born in 2973. At the time of the crime, 3004, he was thirty-one. Now, in 3011, he was thirty-eight. The D.A. shouted that Stein was not physiologically thirty-eight, but thirty-one.

    Defense pointed out freezingly that the law, once the individual was granted to be mentally competent, recognized solely chronological age, which could be obtained only by subtracting the date of birth from the date of now.

    The D.A., growing impassioned, swore that if Stein were allowed to go free, half the laws on the books would be useless.

    Then change the laws, said Defense, to take time travel into account; but until the laws are changed, let them be enforced as written.

    Judge Neville Preston took a week to consider and then handed down his decision. It was a turning point in the history of law. It is almost a pity, then, that some people suspect Judge Preston to have been swayed in his way of thinking by the irresistible impulse to phrase his decision as he did.

    For that decision, in full, was:

    ‘A niche in time saves Stein.’

  7. Lucidian says:

    Have I told you the story of Nate the Snake? (If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, I can give you a (partially) abbreviated version at some point.)

  8. g says:

    endoself, what it gains is brevity. And also that bit of delay before all is understood.

    (My favourite story about Napier, which unlike the “Peccavi” one might actually be true, is his quip about national traditions. Some Indians complained to him about the prohibition of Sati — burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre — on the grounds that “it is our custom”. He replied, allegedly, “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”)

    • Eric Rall says:

      I’ve long been fond of that story. I refer to it as “Napier’s Commentary on Moral Relativism”.

  9. Avantika says:

    The first time I heard “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana,” I ended up in a detailed discussion about the physiology of time flies and how they dilate time around their target fruit to make it rot faster.

  10. Thomas Eliot says:

    My favorite band, wookiefoot, has a song about the over prescription of psychiatric medication, which includes the following double pun on supercalifragilisticexpialidocious:

    If you’re super sad and fragile and accept your own prognosis
    Your psychopharmacologist can expedite your doses

    • Dan says:

      Funny that they’d base a song on overprescription, since I had a musician friend in high school who also, um, based his songs on overprescription. He got one of those fake ADHD diagnoses, and then he’d use his pills to stay up all night writing. He was actually pretty talented (there was some clever wordsmithing in his lyrics) and he got some paid gigs… but then he’d just use the money to buy more stimulants from other “ADHD” kids.

      It was a vicious cycle; don’t fall into that trap. Don’t rhyme for the sake of Ritalin.

      (Hat tip to Matt Weiner.)

  11. C, E-flat, and G go into a bar.

    The bartender says, “Sorry, but we don’t serve minors.” So, the E-flat leaves, and the C and the G have an open fifth between them.

    After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished; the G is out flat. An F comes in and tries to augment the situation, but is not sharp enough.

    A D comes into the bar and heads straight for the bathroom saying, “Excuse me. I’ll just be a second.”

    An A comes into the bar, but the bartender is not convinced that this relative of C is not a minor. Then the bartender notices a B-flat hiding at the end of the bar and exclaims, “Get out now! You’re the seventh minor I’ve found in this bar tonight.”

    The E-flat, not easily deflated, comes back to the bar the next night in a 3-piece suit with nicely shined shoes. The bartender says: “You’re looking sharp tonight, come on in! This could be a major development.” This proves to be the case, as the E-flat takes off the suit, and everything else, and is now au naturel.

    Eventually, the C sobers up, and realizes in horror that he’s under a rest. The C is brought to trial, is found guilty of contributing to the diminution of a minor, and is sentenced to 10 years of DS without Coda at an upscale correctional facility. On appeal, however, the C is found innocent of any wrongdoing, even accidental, and that all accusations to the contrary are bassless.

    The bartender decides he needs a rest – and closes the bar.

  12. fiddlemath says:

    He named the family ranch “Focus”, because that’s where the sun’s rays meet.

  13. Swimmy says:

    The author of the comic Pearls Before Swine is an accomplished punnist. Here is a particularly convoluted and punful example.

  14. Mary says:

    Ben Jonson once claimed that he could make a pun on any subject. Someone immediately offered, “The Queen.” He retorted, “The queen is not a subject; she is the queen!”

  15. Eric Rall says:

    Fruit flies like a banana. Time flies like an arrow. Time Lords like a cryptic statement.

  16. komponisto says:

    I hate to spoil the story about the legendary “Arabic” (!) conductor, but Beethoven’s Ninth has bass parts throughout. (I didn’t need to check, but did anyway.)

    But let me ask you this, Scott, if you don’t mind giving away your trade secrets: how did you write this post, exactly? Did you search Google for “famous puns”, or look up a list on Wikipedia? Or do you keep a file of puns you come across on your computer, the way that Eliezer apparently keeps a file of quotes? Or do you just remember every single pun you’ve ever heard, in preparation for that day when you’re finally going to write that blog post about what makes a good pun? (If so, what other posts are you planning to write years in the future based on things you’re keeping mental track of now?)

    (Yes, of course that’s not an exhaustive list of the possibilities. But, you know,….curiosity. This is an example of what seems to be a standard essay genre: “cleverly tie various examples of something together”. I always feel impressed when I encounter it, as if I feel I would have difficulty doing it; but now I’m doing this thing where I try to find out how impressive people do their impressive things, instead of just assuming they’re magical wizards.)

    • Berry says:

      I second the request for knowledge. 🙂

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I took some of them from my quotes file (very old version up here), some from my jokes file (don’t have a copy online and it’s pretty short anyway and I haven’t kept it up) and some I just remembered.

    • Vertebrat says:

      Maybe it should be bass vocalists instead of bass viols, without the bit about them having a part at the beginning. (Also without the bit about the score being tied, since that doesn’t make sense.)

  17. Mary says:

    Anyone who likes puns should follow Frank and Earnest.

  18. Elissa says:

    As an undergrad I worked in a Drosophila lab. Stray flies were always escaping from bottles and lingering in corners of the lab for a few days. One of the post-docs would often eat bananas in the lab, with predictable results.

    No one but me ever thought the Groucho Marx line was funny. Molecular biologists are lame.

  19. zaogao says:

    One erudite German mathematician had started his proof under the assumption of the axiom of choice (of which Zorn’s lemma is equivalent to). However, finishing the proof without reference to this, he ended his paper with a quote from Tacitus, commenting he wrote “without anger”, as Zorn is German for anger.

  20. ozymandias42 says:

    This post illustrates the wise old statement that the shortest distance between two puns is a straight line.

  21. Julia says:

    The best pun I ever heard came from my father-in-law last Christmas and was completely impromptu. I was explaining why people started hanging stockings for St. Nicholas to leave gifts in: “Supposedly this poor man had three daughters and couldn’t afford dowries for them, so the girls would have to turn to prostitution to support themselves. St. Nicholas threw three sacks of gold, one for each girl, down the family’s chimney so they could marry instead of being prostitutes.” (I promise, that really is the legend.)

    And my father-in-law summed up: “I guess he didn’t want them to be a ho, ho, ho.”

  22. Thank you for this. I have long had an itch to identify what makes a pun good, based on good puns I’ve seen – now you have done it for me.

    But you’ve missed a criterion that can make a great pun. There’s a joke I really like because it’s simultaneously a linguistic and a visual pun. This is how you tell it:

    Why do all the ladies love Jesus?
    Because he’s hung like this! *hold your arms out wide*

    Joke explanation, just in case (don’t bother if you already get the joke): The pun is that the gesture and the word “hung”, as a combination, can have two different meanings. One, the factual meaning, is that Jesus was hung from the cross in that position during the Crucifixion. Two, the meaning that explains why ladies love Jesus, is that Jesus has a penis as large as the distance you are measuring with your hands – women stereotypically prefer sex with men with large penises.

    This category of pun excellence is similar to your “phrases of a few words, all of which get punned at the same time”, but this joke, instead of punning on two words, puns on a word and a gesture, which is a more impressive coincidence. This type of pun could be improved upon, by adding more meanings through different mediums to pun on simultaneously. For instance, an even greater pun might be simultaneously visual, linguistic, verbal (punning on tone of voice meanings), and contextual (punning on multiple interpretations of the joke’s introduction).

  23. Creutzer says:

    A somewhat belated addition, there is this pun-ish invitation which is said to have been extended to Voltaire by Frederick the Great.


    (a sous p à cent sous Si; read: à souper à Sanssouci)

    To which Voltaire is alleged to have replied:


    (J grand, a petit; read: J’ai grand appetit!)