Snickering at Puns: A Rewording Experience

By Sergey Kadinsky

“Would you like to save cold cash on heating bills?”

“Dogs who drink bottled water prefer Scottish Perrier.”

“Nudist colonies are usually clothed until May.”

Yes, those puns were intended. Did you groan? If you had come up with them, would you have said, “No pun intended,” beforehand?

From jokes to literature to the nightly news to advertising, puns are everywhere. Often described as the lowest form of humor, puns provide double meanings to words, revealing hidden messages. “Puns are derailing the train of thought in a conversation,” says Gary Hallock. “Serious people dislike puns because they want to get on with the thought.”

The pun-loving Hallock is the organizer of the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships in Austin, Texas. The annual contest takes place every May at the O. Henry Museum, honoring the American short-story writer renowned for his wry and playful use of words.

“O. Henry leads you down one pun, but to a twisted ending,” says Hallock. “He knew every word in the dictionary and coined his own words.”

Begun in 1977, the contest hosts 64 contestants in a punslinging competition of have-wits. Check out the latest contest at

While some puns work fine, others deserve to be retired, Hallock says. Watching television news, he is annoyed with clichés about the “skinny on a new diet,” recommending instead, “You can lose weight, fast!”

A proud punster, Hallock sees no need to apologize for a pun. He argues that those who apologize are simply bad punsters who need to point out their puns by saying, “No pun intended,” or “Forgive the pun.”

“People who dislike puns are jealous that they don’t have verbal skills,” agrees Marvin Illman, 71, an English teacher at LaGuardia High School in Manhattan. “It takes a certain talent.”

For 41 years, Illman has been amusing his students with deep analyses of William Shakespeare and Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Hamlet has the most puns,” says Illman. “It begins with a pun, ‘a little more than kin, but less than kind.’” Illman then reels off a rapid succession of examples, capped by noting how Hamlet’s idea of suicide by cannon runs against God’s canon.

“It’s like solving the puzzle by putting the pieces together,” says Don Hauptman, 61, a New York advertising consultant who writes articles on puns for Word Ways, a self-described “Journal of Recreational Linguistics.”

At the same time, Hauptman advises against using punny ads. “It’s reminder advertising, a quick teaser,” he says. Paraphrasing award-winning adman John Caples, Hauptman adds, “Don’t use humor in advertising, because people don’t buy from clowns.”

Outside Hauptman’s Upper West Side home, however, posters mimicking the white-on-blue-on-brown logo of the Snickers candy bar offer an array of puns. The ads promote a trip to Feedzgypt, suggest taking a yellow-colored car called a snaxi and urge would-be students to take courses at a chewniversity. Nowhere is the name Snickers mentioned, but the message comes across.

“It’s a language that speaks at the right place at the right time,” says Mars spokesman Ryan Bowling. “You see a taxi, and with a second take, it’s a snaxi.”

Set to run until the end of the year, the nationwide campaign also has an interactive component; Snickers’ Facebook fans can provide their own snack-filled puns. Ads are placed on subway cars, billboards, racing cars and elsewhere, with location-appropriate puns. “The most fun part is coming up with the names,” says Bowling.

Language maven Richard Lederer, who makes his living partly from puns, writes, “Punnery challenges us to apply the greatest pressure per square syllable of language.”

“It is a rewording experience,” adds Lederer, 71, who uses puns in lectures, books and articles and on his weekly radio show, A Way With Words, which is broadcast on KPFS, a public station in San Diego.

At times, family members approach him for advice on the best puns, and Lederer enthusiastically shares his word wisdom.  For example, his nephew, a divorce attorney in Texas, needed a catchy slogan for his business.

“Let’s see, Jan,” Lederer said. “You’re a divorce attorney and you live in San Antonio. How about Remember the Alimony?” The pun became the official slogan of the firm.

Pun Resources:
•    Snacklish Campaign
•    Annual Pun-Off World Championships
•    Pun of the Day
•    Richard Lederer
•    Bad Puns
•    Puns Galore
•    Word Ways

Do you have a pun to share? Post it below, if you dare.

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