Double Trouble: The Good and the Bad of Literary Puns

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Puns, rhymes, and other wordplay have long been the hallmark of winning children’s lit. Treasured works like Alice in Wonderland and A Light in the Attic have proven that the deeper the rabbit hole of absurd double meanings and nonsensical tongue twisters, the better the brain candy. Next in line in this fanciful tradition is Salman Rushdie’s pun-filled boy adventure story, Luka and the Fire of Life. From Fire Bugs with heated tempers to in-console-able mothers who don’t understand video game paraphernalia, Rushdie creates an alternate universe full of doppelgangers and tellingly named distant lands that make for a treacherous journey rife with double meaning and obvious humor.

Outside the realm of children’s books, the pun as a literary technique has held a patchy reputation. Although puns today are mostly associated with their unfortunate ubiquity in porn titles and textbook humor, virtually every literary genre through the ages has employed the pun — whether for wit, flourish, or thematic exploration. Here is a list of some creative uses of the pun, and the notable highs and lows of its use as applied by everyone from bards to boy bands to The Bible itself.

William Shakespeare

“Get thee to a nunnery!” Does Hamlet mean a convent? Yes. Or a whorehouse? That, too. From ripening buds, to de foot et de con, to the homoerotically laced Coriolanus, Shakespeare rode hard the Elizabethan golden age of punnery: According to scholar Samuel T. Coleridge, a Shakespearean play contained an average of 78 puns, and over the life of his career Shakespeare had managed to work in no less than 3000 puns into his oeuvre.

, written by scholar and dramatist Pauline Kiernan is an entertaining compendium of Shakespeare’s sexual puns and their often lost meanings. According to Kiernan, Shakespeare employed clusters of sexual puns to explore questions of philosophy, politics, and morality. From Julius Caesar: ‘What need we any spur [penis] but our own cause / To prick us to redress?’ Caesar goes on to say that their enterprise should not be stained by venereally diseased oats [testicles] — meaning weaklings.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

The name Deep Throat agrees in sound, but infamously plays on two different scenarios — thanks to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All The President’s Men. The legendary reporters earned their chops investigating the Watergate break-ins for The Washington Post, relying on information from FBI agent Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat. This name was taken from the controversial and groundbreaking pornographic film of the same title, which chronicles the search for and discovery of Linda Lovelace’s clitoris, which happens to be located in the back of her throat. Surely, Bernstein and Woodward felt that this would be a perfect pseudonym for their mysterious informant because, just like any good pun, the unraveling White House political scandal was very hard to swallow.

Davy Jones

Out of all the celebrity-studded memoirs that manage to maneuver a pun into the title, from Miles to Go by Miley Cyrus to Don’t Hassle The Hoff by David Hasselhoff, none have more of a sad clowny face feeling than Davy Jones’ 1987 classic, They Made a Monkee Out of Me. This book explores Jones’ bubblegum rise to fame in the mid-’60s as lead singer of the Monkees, a handpicked foursome who blazed the path for future boy bands like ‘N Sync and of course Lance Bass’s own memoir, Out of Synch. And just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, in a 2010 Pittsburg Post-Gazette article, Davy Jones tops his own previous pun with another relatively sadder one, “I used to be a heartthrob — now I’m a coronary.”

Janet and Greta Podleski

From the vegan magazine Off The Hoof to the popular cookbook How It all Vegan — foodies might be healthy and hip, but most are still dishing out the cutest most delicious collection of puns. A list of our favorites come from a low-fat 1997 cookbook called Looneyspoons by Janet and Greta Podleski, who, according to Amazon.com, “are more like a wacky comedy team touring Hoboken.” Their enticing recipes such as Glazed and Confused Carrots, Jurassic Pork Roast, and Miss American Thigh are clearly big blockbuster hits.

Ron Jeremy

In the titillating world of erotica, puns take a sexy and sleazy turn for the worst, or the best — especially if it’s a tell-all tale of legendary Ron Jeremy, who has “acted” in about 2,000 adult films such as Super Hornio Bros. and As Cute as They Cum, not to mention the American musical-comedy horror exploitation film, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. So, in Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz, which explores this porno king’s rise to infamy, a play on words is not surprising, but the creative usage of parentheses does give us brief stall.

Winsor McCay

Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland first ran in The New York Heraldin 1904, bringing the visual pun to the weekly comic strip. Soon after it was first published, the title word “Slumberland” soon acquired a double meaning, referring not only to the state of sleep of the main subject, Nemo, but also to the name of Morpheus’s fairy kingdom that Nemo was always trying to reach in his dream adventures. Each strip began with a new dream, for instance, Nemo would be shown sitting up in bed in the first panel while the bed legs slowly sprouted like daddy long legs. The walking bed would then march Nemo across the remaining panels as he drifted further into sleep/Slumberland.

Candace Bushnell

In 1994, Candace Bushnell started writing a column in The New York Observer based on her own dating and sex life called Sex and the City, which ran for two years before getting “carried away” by HBO and the silver screen. In this scintillating saga, puns and smaltzy word play are power-packed: main protagonist Carrie Bradshaw writes a book called MENhattan and Samantha refers to her West Coast period as “Lost Angeles.” Yet, just when you thought these puns were growing old, Bushnell releases her latest book, The Carrie Diaries, which explores Ms. Bradshaw’s teenage “hell school” years.

Sylvester Stallone

Does being self-referential work when writing a self-help book? For Sly Stallone, king of action-packed cinematic one-liners, it does. Sly Moves is chock full of interesting nuggets of wisdom, ranging from the personal (a reprint of a poem Muhammad Ali wrote for this Italian Stallion) to the casual (a brief listing of food items found in Stallone’s refrigerator). Although the title is horribly punny, we can’t imagine a book that chronicles this star’s physique, nutrition, and workout regime as anything else.

The Bible

Ancient puns can be found in the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. One of the oldest puns in the world, written some 3,000 years ago, comes from the book of Judges. The tenth chapter concerns the thirty sons who “rode around on thirty burros and lived in thirty boroughs.” Cleverly, this is a homophonic pun in English and the words are also very similar in Hebrew: “ayirim” for burrows and “ayarim” for boroughs. Later, in Matthew 16.18, we find a play on the name, Peter: “Thou art Peter [Gr. Petros], and upon this rock [Gr. petra] I will build my church.” Isaiah 56:4-5 turns the subject of eunuchs into an asexual pun: “To eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, choose what pleases me, and hold to my covenant, I will give them a place in the walls of my house and a name that is better than sons or daughters. I will give them a name and they will not be ‘cut off.'”