Someone else would have a punny title for this
September 21, 2017 6:10 PM   Subscribe

Is the art of making puns an acquired skill, or innate? I am always so impressed when people come up with some dumb play on words based on their present situation. To be clear, it's the spontaneity that's the impressive part for me - the thought literally never occurs to me. Punners of AskMe, how do you do it? Does the thought just pop into your head, or do you have to actively it through first? Did you grow up in a particularly punny environment? Is there anyone out there who has become proficient in punning in their non-native language (English or otherwise)? Would also welcome references to any pun-related scientific literature.
posted by btfreek to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My father is never without a pun. Much of our family puns in self defense and the more one does it the easier it becomes.
posted by leslies at 6:20 PM on September 21, 2017 [6 favorites]

It runs in my family...I swear we all think of the same thing at once. Even my 6 year old comes up with some of the simple ones...but she has heard them and word play her whole life.

I joke with my co-workers that I lay awake at night thinking of witty replies and puns, but this is in fact not true...I honestly do just blurt them out as they pop into my head.

I grew up with people who were very literate and reasonably well educated, but more importantly played with words constantly, but I think our brains are maybe just a bit wired for it too.

I'm not fluent enough in any other language to do puns, but I can rhyme and play in my second language a bit, so I think it's a fluency thing. If I was truly fluent, I think I'd come up with the puns easier.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 6:26 PM on September 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

It just comes to me. It's a blessing and a curse. A blurse, if you will.

I'm hyperlinguistic and I come from a similar family, who pun and wordplay relentlessly, so I don't know what's nature and what's nurture here. It's effortless for me but like any skill, I bet you could improve with practice.
posted by bizarrenacle at 6:29 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's a disease. I find puns dorky, obvious, not truly clever, and painfully unfunny, but it's like I can't help it.

Came from a very verbal family, read a lot, was verbal early, cleverness and wordplay were rewarded with attention and praise and laughs. Don't know what's nature or nurture (maybe they reinforce each other, which supports the idea that exposure and practice would build the skill.)
posted by kapers at 6:40 PM on September 21, 2017

I grew up in a dirt poor working class family - dad read at about a 4th grade level and mom a few grades better than that. They had their talents, but weren't very punny.

I have always loved puns, and can't remember not finding them funny. Now, as a middle aged adult, my friends say I am quick witted and fast with puns, so.... I think it's a learned skill. If you have a knack for wordplay and language, I think it is really easy to build on.

But they just pop in my head, unbidden. I suppose I perhaps learned them, being as bookish a child as I was, but... who knows. My mind tends to go at about 1000 thoughts per second, so maybe it's just a byproduct of that.

My poor son, though. He never inherited the pun gene, and even today, in his mid20s, he's all "Goddamnit, dad!" about 3 times per conversation. Sorry, not sorry, son.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:56 PM on September 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

I love puns and love many punsters, and something I've realized about punning over the years is that it's pretty much a show-off of knowledge enhanced by quick reaction time. The more literary, musical, and pop culture references you have floating around in your head at any given time, and the deeper your understanding of the basics of language is, the easier it is to draw upon those things to make a pun.
posted by rhiannonstone at 6:57 PM on September 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

I figured out my partner liked puns and I started making puns. I'm inclined to talk before I think, so the puns just started showing up in my day-to-day conversation.

They don't always work, but sometimes they're really great.
posted by aniola at 6:57 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm someone who just enjoys blurting out puns. They come to me pretty spontaneously and I just feel the need to inflict them on those around me, but sometimes I'll put some thought into them. But when I think about it, it might be down to the fact I've always been an avid reader so maybe it's about making connections through a cross-referenced index of "OOH. That sounds like that other thing do.." then out comes the pun.

Then there are those who put a lot of effort into crafting puns. Case in point: Andy Zaltzman, comedian, also of The Bugle podcast. He discusses his craft here, although "craft" might be pushing it. Maybe it's more of a compulsion by his own admission:

Zaltzman: It starts with one or two, but once you get onto the tenth in a minute, an element of hysteria and desperation sets in.

A sample Andy Zaltzman pun run.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:06 PM on September 21, 2017

I think this comment I wrote here in another thread several years ago is germane:

For me, my puns have often surprised me and given me just a little insight on how my brain works without me, as it were. When I was about ten, my mother and I were getting ready to clean the kitchen and I was holding a bottle of cleaner. She said, "This kitchen is as dirty as hell!" and I brandished the bottle and said, "Then let us spray!" It popped out of my mouth with no seeming conscious thought, and surprised and delighted both of us. It was like my brain had done a trick. Quite wonderful.

Much later, as a case manager, I had a client who was bipolar, and when she was in a manic phase, she spoke mainly in puns. She seemed to have access at those times to a part of her brain that was not available to her most of the time. It was fascinating.

(I think those who feel that puns are "the lowest form of wit" simply aren't very good at them.)
posted by thebrokedown at 7:10 PM on September 21, 2017 [10 favorites]

I can't remember not punning. I have a pretty extensive vocabulary, so that might help. Also, audience helps. My two sons are more than old enough to really appreciate puns (as shown by their groans and screams for mercy), and these reactions only encourage me.

Something I've noticed, however, as I move from my 50s into my early 60s, my spontaneity has gone up. I'm coming up with situational zingers much faster than I used to, and I'm not sure why. Kinda enjoying it, though...
posted by lhauser at 7:18 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's a problem- I call it a "condition" half jokingly but honestly I can hardly help myself at times. However, that doesn't mean they are totally effortless.

One of my recreational activities when I am alone is thinking up new puns and waiting for a chance to use them. My pals also like puns so we riff off each other, and sometimes there is a decent delay while someone thinks of one. I have always been wordy (I used to read thesauri and dictionaries for fun), so I have a lot of ammo at my disposal, and because I really *like* puns I seek out punny media.

So I expect those pathways are pretty well developed and whenever I drop a spontaneous pun, it is because I am well primed.
posted by windykites at 7:18 PM on September 21, 2017

Neither of my parents and none of my siblings were into puns when I was a kid. I played some word games with my grandmother but nothing particularly punny. I was a voracious reader and almost entirely conversant with adults. The most important factors are a willingness to look really dumb, because at least half of puns are truly terrible. Either in cadence or meaning or funniness. You're also actually going to annoy some people even with the very good puns. Some of the other things that help build pun skillsare

Large vocabulary
Quick index of homophones/homonyms
Rhyming/near rhyming/slant rhyming
Social/pop culture/literary references
Ability to translate physical/visual comedy to words

Like you might be talking about someone who's a real tree hugger and the jokes might go from pot reference (sometimes marijuana is called "tree") to a joke about not hugging plastic trees, to that person being someone who really "copse" a feel (a copse is a small stand of trees, which I got to teach someone today while working on a NY times crossword puzzle) and then you might take a turn toward the cozy trend hygge, which is sort of pronounced with a u sound and is a bit of a stretch.

The whoever you were talking to would beg you to stop and you'd say, "hey, don't bark at me, these puns are just creating a log jam in my brain and if I don't get them out I'll be drawing planks on any other topic."

Then they'll leave the room. I make puns in my second language sometimes. People usually seem to find this endearing, I think because I sound like a not very smart second grader with my joy at finding a fun pairing.

There's a card game called Punderdome based on a monthly NYC event that is an actual live pun competition. Find YouTube videos of that and get the game. Making lots of puns is the best way to light that fire.
posted by bilabial at 7:21 PM on September 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

I pun intentionally on occasion. More often, I pun without realizing it, and look briefly confused when my conversation partner(s) groan(s), before I realize what happened and insist on my innocence.

Either my subconscious is particularly wily or particularly pun-deaf.
posted by cnidaria at 7:49 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am an un-discourageable punster, I suspect for three reasons.

Firstly, my father was a big fan of a good pun and I grew up surrounded by them.

Secondly, I love language and wordplay. I'm articulate and enjoy using it. Always have.

Thirdly, I have had significant issues with both anxiety and social ostracism, particularly when younger (possibly in the other order). Being the funny guy and making people laugh can offset this sometimes and so makes for perfect encouragement. Lots of anxious people are very funny, in my experience at least, for me that partly translates into the odd bit of pun.

Practice can absolutely make you better at it.
posted by deadwax at 8:13 PM on September 21, 2017

For scientific literature, poke around for Witzelsucht (a neurological condition characterized by the need to make puns & inappropriate jokes) and moria* (inappropriate cheerfulness or silliness). Here's a recent short item with two case studies of "intractable joking" that I think got picked up in the nonscientific press. Interesting stuff about humor and brain damage.

The fact that there's a German word for the compulsion to make jokes may seem like it's from a New Yorker cartoon but I have to say the idea that puns can be an irresistible tic is familiar to me. I blurt out puns when I'm panicked, nervous, or uncomfortable. I've gotten it under control the way I've gotten other kinds of social anxiety under control (which is to say--mostly). So I don't blurt as much, even in the pun-rich environment of Metafilter--but I truly can't help trying to think of puns, which is a kind of unwelcome effort. There's a part of my brain that's always looking for spoonerisms, slant rhymes, anagrams. Like the world is made of Scrabble letters. Sometimes it's a source of genuine delight & sometimes it's a chore.

If punning is a muscle you're looking to build, I'd suggest it's two separate skills: wordplay and social confidence. For the first, (as above) crossword puzzles from lots of different sources, cryptics, and submitting entries to the New Yorker cartoon caption contest. For the second--improv or other acting work.

*And they call it a mine. A mine! /obligatory
posted by miles per flower at 8:25 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I find that I make the best puns sometimes when I'm not trying to be funny. A friend and I were having a conversation about bicycles, and we were both really exhausted at the time from a long day. He started punning and wanted me to join in:

Me: I'm too tired for this.
Him: Wow, that's a good one!
Me: ...what?
Him: Think about what you just said.
Me: ...
Me: I rode into that one.
Him: HA!
posted by divabat at 9:44 PM on September 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Puns come naturally to most of the people I know who enjoy it, but not me. I like to think it's because my brain is too engaged in earnest socializing and empathizing to be able to devote enough processing power, but I also might just be a slower thinker. My boyfriend would say they just come to him, but I do see him working to come up with them sometimes.

I get better after practice. My boyfriend and I will do back-and-forths that I suppose are drills. I'll give some kind of unintentional setup ("wasn't there a show called Heartbeat?") and he'll make a joke ("would a show about falling in love with a sheep be called Heartbleat?"). Then we'll go back and forth with rhymes and set ups until one person taps out. I'm usually much faster with all kinds of puns after consistent rhyming practice.
posted by lilac girl at 9:45 PM on September 21, 2017

I think I actually once got a job because I accidentally made a pun in the interview and my future manager thought it was great. For me it's a mix of "this is just how I am" and "this is what I've worked to be all my life." At this point it's something my brain does on autopilot, but definitely as a teen I worked at it.

At the time I thought "this is what's going to make me friends once I'm an adult." Just when it was really becoming clear to me how gross a misapprehension that was amongst the general population, I got hired for my in-interview wordplay and never looked back. PUN CITY.
posted by potrzebie at 10:27 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

> Does the thought just pop into your head, or do you have to actively it through first?

Both. Mostly the former (and as I see it, it's basically just complete free-association of homophones, synonyms, and categories). Any word you hear or say, you've got to be familiar with multiple definitions or usages. Alliteration is a pun goldmine. Also, it's 100% social to me-- I don't pun to myself.

As for the latter side, actively going through it, well, when you get in a run of puns with someone, you've got to start generating and dismissing possibilities as fast as you can. (Usually it pays to open with the obvious puns, the low-hanging fruit-- opening with obscure puns will get people's expectations too high too early.) And sometimes you sense that there's a pun because some words rhymed unexpectedly (or made a "slant" rhyme, a kind of near-miss) or alliterated and the situation feels ripe. There's definitely a sense one develops for pun potential. Puntential.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:59 PM on September 21, 2017

Some innate, some practice? I've always loved words and wordplay, so I actively seek out clever puns and that means they're readily at hand. (I probably enjoy them more than I make them, though.) Some punning is a matter of consideration and work, though: Ladle Rat Rotten Hut is an example of extensive wordtwistery; the text version is almost incomprehensible without spoken words to hold it together.

And then there's conlang punning.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:37 AM on September 22, 2017

Voracious reader here, dictionaries and thesauri for fun, crosswords, etc etc. However, I don't have the punning gene except once in a very long while. It always astonishes and delights when one pops up. I wish it happened more often.
posted by MovableBookLady at 3:10 PM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the very interesting responses! I was a real bookworm as a kid and consider myself fairly well-versed in the nuances of language, but got all of that through written means as my parents are not native English speakers, and it sounds like constant exposure to punniness is common factor (though now that I think about it, my dad pulled out some pretty rad cross-linguistic wordplay back in the day..)

Tbh I'm not particularly interested in deliberately cultivating a punning habit (though maybe it'd help with my job search?!?!), but it is neat to have some insight into how others' brains work!
posted by btfreek at 4:16 PM on September 22, 2017

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