Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Greeks Did NOT Have a Word for It

You hear all sorts of nasty things about puns and making puns--from "The penalty for the Perfect Pun is Death," and "a Pun is the lowest form of humor." And so on. Trouble is, we still laugh--even if that laugh is preceded by a groan.

I have to admit it--my family was, and I suppose still is, loaded with folks who were masters at punning. Two of my father's brothers, Mark and Forrest, were particularly afflicted. Neither of them could resist any chance to pun. And yet, we still allowed them into our homes for holidays.

I don't remember any examples of Uncle Forrest's puns, but I do remember most of them were not the kind you had to stretch your credibility to believe in. No, though every other phrase he uttered might be a play on words, they were all witty and once you got over the shock, very apt.

Uncle Forrest, age four

Uncle Mark, now, was a published wit--he wrote for, among other papers, the San Francisco Chronicle, and he appeared in Herb Caen's famous column a lot as Herbert the Furrier. There was--and maybe still is--a real Herbert the Furrier, and he used to reward Uncle Mark with whiskey whenever an item appeared; it was always very good for business. Anyhow, Uncle Mark was the janitor in the building Herbert occupied, and chose him as his avatar for euphonious reasons. They became fast friends, of course, and that lasted until Uncle Mark died. I don't remember any specific puns in the Herbert series, but I know there were many.

Uncle Mark, age ten

My father was also a punster, and sometimes his puns made it into Herb Caen's column, too. One of those was the result of Father's trying to pay a compliment to Grace Sotomayor, the wife of the famous San Francisco artist Antonio Sotomayor. "My Dear," said Father bending over to kiss the lady's hand, "every leer you grow younger!" Father always insisted it was not a slip of the tongue. My favorite, though, was when Father remarked that a friend of his was training Collies to appear in the circus, and was raising them on a ferry boat so he could say he bred his cast upon the waters.

My father, David, age 14

I know. But please bear up--there's more.

I started off with a title that might seem surprising; after all, the Greeks had a word for everything else, didn't they? Well, apparently not--no word for pun in Classical Greek. Honest. I know this because I wrote a paper about a Greek pun that wasn't called a pun--we didn't get around to naming those double-edged bits of whimsy "puns" until the 17th century CE. So, while there has been a long history of the jokes themselves, we have been calling them puns for only four-plus centuries. But I digress.

Back in the dark ages, when my Mother and Father were not yet married, they were invited by a family friend to lunch at the Algonquin Round table. For those of you who may not know about this famous lunch group, it flourished at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in the late1920's. Among the members were Franklin P. Adams, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Corey Ford (the family friend). These august humorists were always trying to best each other in the pun department, and to this end they had devised a game where one would come up with a word, and someone else whose turn it was had to make a pun on that word. Well, Mother's adversary was Dorothy Parker, and she thought and thought about how to stump that famous lady. "Popocatepetl!" she said at last, certain a play on that word would be impossible. Dorothy was not daunted in the least. She remarked, no doubt with a triumphant smirk, "Give that po' po' cat a petal to play with--it's bored." Poor Mother--but she had a chance few others have had, and always spoke of the occasion fondly.

My mother, Anne, in 1925

That game, though, has been played in our family since. I remember one occasion at Uncle Mark's, when I was 12 or 13, when we played the game for hours, it seemed. My cousin Mark, who at that time (and forever after) was called "Little Mark" was a precocious lad of ten or so, and came up with a few dandies. One I remember was on the word "Cadillac"--"Cat'll act mean if you step on its tail." Oh, and "sunder"--" 'sunder the bed if you want it." And on and on. Pretty good for a little kid.

A variation on that game has to do with colors. For example, "What color is the bathroom on a French airplane?" Answer: Lavendeair. Or: "What color is the result of eating a heavy meal?" Answer: "Burple." But enough of that.

I have to admit, I have been guilty of my own puns. One I like to use on cards is "Greetings from the Great Northwet." Those of you who live in Seattle and environs will understand that one perfectly.

I will end this nonsense by going outside the family. Esther Birdsall Darling, author of the classic Baldy of Nome, was a family friend, and one day came to tea at my Aunt Quail's house where I was staying at the time. Mrs. Darling was telling us about a trip she had taken to Romania. In her hotel there was a lovely old tiled stove with a tall chimney, fondly referred to as "Marie." Mrs. Darling was practicing courtesies toward the stove in preparation for being presented to Marie, the Queen of Romania the following day. A large and beautiful Persian cat came and sat in front of the fire and watched her. "Oh," said Mrs. Darling, "this is too much!  The Queen of Romania AND the chat du Perse!" Now THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is a Perfect Pun!

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