I’ve never bothered to heed the warnings:
Samuel Johnson described the pun as “the lowest form of humor.” John Dryden concurred, calling it “the most groveling kind of wit.” OK, I’ll admit that those two may be among the greatest literary figures of all-time. But what did they know?
Then again, I guess I’ve had my fair share of more contemporary critics, too. My wife ignores my puns. My kids roll their eyes and feign embarrassment. And when I endlessly post quips on social media, old classmates often reply with sad-faced emojis and remarks like “Groan” or “Stop!” They’re just kidding, right?
I’m not at all ashamed to admit I’m afflicted with a fondness for “paronomasia.” That means I like word play that “exploits multiple meanings of a term, or of similar sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect.” The definition is right out of Merriam-Webster.
Yup, that’s me, all right. I’m just not sure when or why it started. Maybe it stems from my love of crosswords. Or the desire to get a cheap laugh. At any rate, I began writing a journal at 12 and can go back and find a few weak attempts in those early scribblings.
Having a last name like “Coyne” has been a blessing or curse, depending on how you look at it. Without even trying, there was plenty of material to use. Like the thought of naming our kids “Penny” or “Rusty.” Thank goodness my parents went with “Thomas William” and not something like “Flip Andrew.” Imagine the grief I’d have faced when signing my checks.
As a teenager, I wrote a column for our high school paper and they called it, “My Side of the Coyne.” When I played outfield for our softball team, a lazy fly ball hit my way, gradually became a “Can of Coyne.” There was even unintended word play resulting from mispronunciations from strangers. Like the time I took a date out for dinner and the waiter looked at my reservation and blurted, “Right this way, Mr. Groyne!” Thankfully my first name wasn’t “Harry.”
In college, a shy kid like me grew bolder with a beer or two. After awhile, there were topics that just cried for a plethora of pathetic puns. Generally it proved wise to test out my material on friends or family before risking my reputation with audiences that offered more to lose.
Animal references provided some of the most elementary responses. Mention a dog and I’d work my “Quit hounding me!” line into the conversation. Refer to rabbits and it was usually “hare-raising.” Bears became “polarizing,” deer offered “doe” and “buck” opportunities for cashing in on a potential “money” tie-in and other farm animals left me feeling “sheepish” or telling “pony” tales.
Having an affection for sports didn’t hurt, either. Talk about golf and I’d be “teed off.” Bowling was “right up my alley.” I even “got a kick” out of soccer as my “goal” for a chuckle or two.
What I have gradually learned about this fragile form of fraternization is that it’s always important to know your audience. What’s humorous to one person might seem inappropriate or insulting to another. While the simple stuff can be safer, it might also seem less funny. I’m convinced that’s why intelligent communicators like Johnson and Dryden felt the pun was beneath them.
As a broadcaster and then later, a teacher, I again had opportunities to sprinkle sportscasts and seminars with synonyms, spoonerisms and sappy sayings. Some found them silly. Others sagacious. Still, I just couldn’t help myself.
So now I’m 65 and the majority of my material has either been used too frequently or simply wasn’t all that great to begin with. Laurie still warns folks with her familiar refrain I’ve heard since the day we got married 31 years ago: “Oh, oh. He’s got a new audience now.”
But something unexpected has occurred, amidst the gradual shift to texting, messaging and social media. In a world where 24-hour communication demands lightning fast “tweets” and more style than substance, my fascination with plays on words has been given a rebirth of sorts.
These new forms of interaction have made it much easier for smart alecks like me to post one liners without fear, since political debates and other more weighty topics too often end friendships nowadays.
I never saw it coming. But even the corny, low-brow, oft-used content I began amassing years ago, now has a greater purpose:
It’s making people who’ve frequently never met, or haven’t seen one another in years, share some innocent commonality for a change that brings a smile or two.
Sure, “likes” on Facebook and Twitter can be self-serving. They can also create a false interpretation of objectivity, since we tend to gravitate toward audiences that agree with us.
But watching pun threads evolve into witty banters between former students, broadcast colleagues and old pals has given me such satisfaction, not to mention inspiration to keep them coming. In fact, there are regular contributors now offering far more clever comebacks than me.
So maybe I will never be able to keep up with the Johnsons. And my puns should be punished for not being dry enough for Dryden. But I intend to keep coining a phrase or two.
Look at it this way … I could have been a banker, but I simply lost interest. If I’d taken a job as a prison warden, I might have been a con tender. No, for better or worse, I was born a punster. So now the jokes are on you.
Tim Madigan September 17, 2018 at 6:48 pm
This is hilarious, Tommy.Reply