The New Monthly Magazine/Volume 7/Puns and Punsters


"The gravest beast is an ass; the gravest bird is an owl; the gravest fish is an oyster; and the gravest man a fool."

Gravity, says Lord Bolingbroke, is the very essence of imposture. A quack or a pretender is generally a very grave and reverend signior; and though I would not venture to assert that the converse of this proposition is invariably true, I must confess, that as I am apt to doubt the virtue of an obtrusive Puritan and rigourist, so am I marvellously m*one to suspect the wisdom of your serious and solemn Precisian. While the shallow pedant endeavours to impose upon the world by a serious and pompous deportment, minds of a superior order will be often found abandoning themselves to playfulness and puerility. Plato, after discoursing philosophy with his disciples upon the promontory of Sunium, frequently indulged the gaiety of his heart by relaxing into a vein of the most trivial jocoseness; but once seeing a grave formalist approach in the midst of their trifling, he exclaimed, "Silence, my friends! let us be wise now; here is a fool coming." This man's race is not extinct. Reader! hast thou not sometimes encountered a starched looking quiz who seemed to have steeped his countenance in vinegar to preserve it from the infection of laughter?—a personage of whom it might be pronounced, as Butler said of the Duke of Buckingham, that he endures pleasures with less patience than other men do their pains?—a staid, important, dogged, square-rigged, mathematical-minded sort of an animal? Question him, and I will lay my head to yours (for I like to take the odds), that whatever tolerance he may be brought to admit for other deviations from the right line of gravity, he will profess a truculent and implacable hatred of that most kind-hearted, sociable, and urbane witticism termed—a pun.

Oh the Anti-risible rogue! Oh the jesticide—the Hilarifuge! the extinguisher of "quips and cranks and wanton wiles;"—the queller of quirks, quiddets, quibbles, equivocation, and quizzing! the gagger of gigglers! the Herod of witlings, and Procrustes of full-grown Punsters! Look at his atrabilarious complexion; it is the same that Caesar feared in Brutus and Cassias; such a fellow is indeed fit for treasons, stratagems, and plots; he has no music in his soul, for he will not let us even play upon words. Will nothing but pure wit serve thy turn, most sapient Sir? Well then, set us the example—

       —— "Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be he that first cries Hold! enough!"

How,—dumb-founded? Not quite;—methinks I hear him quoting Dr. Johnson's stale hyperbole—"Sir, the man that would commit a pun would pick a pocket;" to which I would oppose an equally valid dictum of an illustrious quibbler—"Sir, no man ever condemned a good pun who was able to make one." I know not a more aggrieved and unjustly proscribed character in the present day than the poor painstaking punster. He is the Paria of the dining- table; it is the fashion to run him down, and as every dull ass thinks he may have a kick at the prostrate witling, may I be condemned to pass a whole week without punning, (a fearful adjuration!) if I do not show that the greatest sages, poets, and philosophers of all ages, have been enrolled upon this proscribed list!

Even in Holy Writ, whatever might have been the intention of the speaker, there is authority for a play upon words equivalent to a pun. When Simon Bar-Jona, for his superior faith, received the name of Peter, (which in Greek signifies a stone or rock,) the divine bestower of that appellation exclaimed, "I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church," &c—Homer has made the wily Ulysses save his life by means of a pun. In the ninth book of the Odyssey that hero informs the Cyclops that his name is Noman; and when the monster, after having had his eye put out in his sleep, awakes in agony, he thus roars to his companions for assistance:

"Friends! No-man kills me. No-man in the hour
Of sleep oppresses me with fraudful power.—
If No-man hurt thee, but the hand divine
Inflict disease, it fits thee to resign.
To Jove or to thy father Neptune pray,
The brethren cried, and instant strode away"

It will be observed that Pope has preserved the equivoque in his translation, which attests his respect for this most ancient jeu-de-mots; while Ulysses is described as hurrying away in high glee, "pleased with the effect of conduct and of art," which is an evidence that Homer felicitated himself upon the happiness of the thought. This passage exhibits a very rude and primitive state of the art; for had any modern Cyclopes been invoked to aid their comrade under similar circumstances they would have seen through so flimsy a trick even with one eye.

Later Greek writers were by no means slow in following so notable an example. Plutarch has preserved several of these Pteroenta, or flying words, particularly King Philip's celebrated pun to the physician who attended him when his collar-bone was broken; and Diogenes the Cynic made so happy an equivoque upon a damsel's eye, which the profligate Didymus undertook to cure, that Scaliger said he would rather have been author of it than King of Navarre. From the comic authors a whole galaxy of similar jokes might be collected; but I reserve the specification for a new edition of Hierodes, the Joe Miller of Alexandria, which I am preparing for the press in ten volumes quarto.

The Romans, who imitated the Greeks in every thing, were not likely to forget their puns, verbaque apta joco. Cicero informs us that Cæsar was a celebrated performer in this way. Horace in his seventh satire, giving an account of the quarrel between Persios and Rupilius Rex, before Brutus the Prætor, makes the former exclaim, "Per magnos, Brute, Deos te oro, qui reges consuêris tollere, cur non hunc Regem jugulas?" thus playing upon the names of both parties. Martial was an accomplished punster; and Ovid not only quibbled upon words, but metamorphosed them into a thousand phantasies and vagaries.

The same valuable privilege formed the staple commodity of the ancient Oracles; for if the presiding deities had not been shrewd punsters or able to inspire the Pythoness with ready equivoques, the whole establishment must speedily have been declared bankrupt. Sometimes indeed they only dabbled in accentuation, and accomplished their prophecies by the transposition of a stop, as in the well-known answer to a soldier enquiring his fate in the war for which he was about to embark. "Ibis, redibis, Nunquam in bello peribis." The warrior set off in high spirits upon the faith of this prediction, and fell in the first engagement, when his widow had the satisfaction of being informed that he should have put the full stop after the word "nunquam", which would probably have put a full stop to his enterprise and saved his life. More commonly, however, they betook themselves to a positive pun, the double construction of which enabled them to be always right: sometimes playing upon a single word, and sometimes upon the whole clause of a sentence. When Croesus, about to make war upon Cyrus, consulted the Delphian priestess, he was told that in crossing the river Halys he would overturn a great empire—which could hardly fail to be true; for if he succeeded, he would subvert the Assyrian kingdom; if he failed, his own would be overwhelmed. Pyrrhus received a similar response as to the fate of his expedition against the Romans. "Credo equidem Æacidas Romanos vincere posse," which might import either that the Æacides from whom Pyrrhus was descended, would conquer the Romans, or precisely the reverse: such are the advantages of a double accusative.

Christianity, by superseding these Oracles, did not, most fortunately, extinguish quibbling, for which we have the authority of one of the earliest Popes. Some Pagan English youths of extraordinary beauty being presented to him, he exclaimed, "Non Angli, sed Angeli forent si essent Christiani."

Heraldic bearings are supposed to have been invented to distinguish the different nations, armies, and clans that were congregated together in the Crusades; and the mottos assumed upon this occasion, if we may judge by those of England, bore almost universally some punning allusion to the name or device of the chief. The similar epigraphs still retained by the Vernon, Fortescue, and Cavendish families, as well as by numerous others, may be viewed as so many venerable testimonies to the antiquity of punning in this our happy island.

There is not one of our sterling old English writers from whom we ought not glean some specimen of this noble art; which seems to have attained its golden age in that Augustan æra of our literature—the reign of our renowned Queen Elizabeth, when clergymen punned in the pulpit, judges upon the bench, and criminals in their last dying speeches. Then was it that the deer-stealing attorney's clerk fled from Stratford, and introducing whole scenes of punning into his immortal plays, eliciting quibbles not less affluently from the mouths of fools and porters, than from the dread lips of the weird sisters, "who palter with us in a doable sense," established upon an imperishable basis the glory of his favourite science of Paronomasia;—a glory irradiating and reflected by the whole galaxy of dramatic talent with which he was surrounded.

Succeeding writers, though they have never equalled this splendour of quibble, have not failed to deposit occasional offerings upon the altar of Janus, the god of puns. Dryden pretended to be angry, when being in a coffee-house with his back towards Rowe, one of his friends said to him, "You are like a waterman; you look one way, and Rowe another;" but, though unwilling to be the object of a pun, he had no compunction in being the author of many, for the support of which assertion the reader may consult his dramatic works. Addison's opinion of this laugh-provoking practice maybe collected from the 440th number of the Spectator, wherein he describes a society who had established among themselves an infirmary for the cure of all defects of temper and infractions of good manners. "After dinner a very honest fellow chancing to let a pun fall from him, his neighbour cried out, 'To the infirmary!' at the same time pretending to be sick at it, as having the same natural antipathy to a pun which some have to a cat. This produced a long debate. Upon the whole, the punster was acquitted, and his neighbour sent off."—Pope's authority we have already cited. Gay was probably the author of the play upon his own name, when he observed that the great success of his Beggar's Opera, whilst Rich was proprietor of the theatre, had made Gay rich, and Rich gay. But what shall we say of Swift, the punster's Vade-mecum, the Hierarch, the Pontifex, the Magnus Apollo of the tribe; the Alpha and Omega, the first and last of the professors of equivocation; whose mind was an ever-springing fountain of quiddets, and the thread of whose life was an unbroken string of puns from his first to his second childhood? Impossible as it is to do justice to the memory of so great a man, I feel the eulogomania swelling within me; and that I may effectually check its yearnings, I leap athwart a measureless hiatus, and revert to that lugubrious, somnolent, single-sensed, and no witted Anti-punster, whom I apostrophised in the outset.

And now, thou word-measurer, thou line-and-rule mechanic, thou reasoning but not ruminating animal, now that I have produced these authorities, limited to a narrow list from the want of room, not of materials, wilt thou have the ridiculous arrogance to affect contempt for a pun? That genuine wit which thou pretendest to worship, (as the Athenians built an altar to the unknown Deity,) has been defined to be an assimilation of distant ideas; and what is a pun but an eliciter of remote meanings? which, though they may not always amount to a definite idea, are at all events the materials of one, and therefore ingredients in the composition of real wit. These Protean combinations are the stimulants of fancy, the titillators of the imagination, the awakeners of the risible faculties; and to condemn them because the same happy results may be produced by a more rare and difficult process, is either an exemplification of the fox and the sour grapes, or the pride of mental luxury, which would quarrel with all gratifications that are cheap and accessible. The sterling commodity is scarce—let us prize it the more when we encounter it; but in the mean time let us not reject a good substitute when it is presented. Gooseberry wine is no very lofty succedaneum for sparkling Champagne, but it is better than fasting. Some may not like the flavour of the beverage, but none would think of abusing the caterer who puts upon the table the best liquor that his cellar affords. These sullen stupidities are reserved for an Anti-punster.H.