Pathological punishment

We’ve been told in no uncertain terms that PCP is bad for you and that PPE is good, especially for health workers, if only they had an adequate supply. I wonder what’s up with PPO and PPV. The prob­lem with acronyms is they’re only meaning­ful when the letters make sense as words. Please don’t despair, because I want to talk about PP.

A Proper Pun secretes the heady aro­ma of an intoxicant, and it can catch the reader, listener, or even the speaker by surprise, prompting a wry smile, an outra­geous laugh, or a resounding groan, like the ones from my brother and sister, and even from my nephew who has groaned con­siderably since I first held him in my arms. Now my nephew is an adult and his head is filled with wordplay. When he stands with his hands in his pockets and speaks, we lis­ten carefully, suspecting the puns are in his genes.

People who live with people who patho­logically pepper the air with puns may start to feel a little pun-shy when in the pun­ster’s presence, because there’s always the expectation that each pun will be preceded by a drum roll. Mind you, I’m not accus­ing my nephew of anything tacky. Actually, I blame myself. I may have set a reckless example, and if I have, I apologize. Not to him, but those around him.

The best advice I can offer for those who are pro-pun advocates, who stipple the air around them with droplets of spontaneous silly word choice, is to wear a mask because while it can’t prevent the puns from com­ing out, it may provide a convenient escape if no one can identify the punster when the groans start rumbling.

Ideally, the punster slips the pun into the conversation without calling attention to the mischief, because a good pun like a good bottle of wine is only appreciated once it’s uncorked. Bragging about it only obligates the imbibers to say something nice, or worse, to say nothing at all.

I try to be discrete, because I love watch­ing faces after I launch a pun just to see if anyone catches it. As a public school teach­er, I also punished my students by using them as an assessment tool, because offer­ing an occasional pun helped me keep track of who might still be listening. Sometimes a student or even a stranger looks at me and raises an eyebrow, taps a foot, or smiles. In my mind that’s high praise, because the lis­tener is playing the same game I’m playing, watching to see if anyone else gets it. Often the conversation just moves along, as if I meant something completely sensible, and with me it’s always hard to tell.

My nephew has revealed genuine tal­ent for slipping an original and spontane­ous pun into a conversation but I worry he’ll end up feeling like I did once, afraid he really shouldn’t have spoken up. Dear nephew, if you worry too much about what you’re going say next, your vocabulary re­flex will become constipated. It’s important to remain open to what may come out each and every time you’re sitting on the preci­pice of a pun.

Freud said puns are “cheap,” which likely inspired a punster to write “A Freudian slip is when you say one thing and mean your mother.” Supposedly, puns have been ridi­culed as the lowest form of humor, which prompted Henry Erskine to add “…it is therefore the foundation of all wit.” They are as old as language itself, having a long and respectable history, from Homer to Chaucer and Shakespeare at the respectable end of literary tradition. But every obscure journalist who crafts a punny headline for a news story redeems the modern world with another glimpse of wit. You don’t have to be “literary” to turn the lowly pun into the pinnacle of your repartee. If nothing else, using puns proves you’re at least paying at­tention to what someone else is saying.

My nephew possesses an added advan­tage when speaking. He’s a stand-in at near­ly six-and-a-half feet tall. People around him will always be looking up to him no matter what he says. It’s frosting on the cake that he can raise the level of language awareness around him even if he happens to occasionally turn out a rather mediocre pun. We all do.

One additional characteristic to make a pun so appealing is that besides having the potential to be funny, it generally presents a kind of humor not grounded in racism, sexism, crudity, or just plain nastiness for the sake of a cheap laugh. I dare not cat­egorically state that all puns are politically correct, but I will step out into the traffic

of public opinion to say they are politi­cally smart. For example, which president will always be known for his absolute in­competence? I don’t know what you first thought, but if you guessed Useless S. Grant, that’s exactly what I mean.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at

From David Feela.