“Hi Vince, all fine here. Are there many first person singular object pronouns, or is it just me…”
My father puns with abandon. Whether via text message—like the above, sent last weekend—or in person, the frequency of his wordplay borders on self-parody, a dad with endless dad jokes. I have, to my friends’ chagrin, inherited this punning gene—I got my dad jokes from my dad—but my insufferable humor represents only a fraction of his prowess.
The childhood dinner table was one of his pun arenas. No meal ended without a few verbal parries. An enduring pun, one repeated almost every Friday when we ordered pizza, involved my father, a practicing Catholic, extending an abandoned crust to the table. “May the piece of crust be with you,” he intoned, head bent in faux reverence.
The greatest pun my dad ever conceived—and, to this day, the greatest pun I’ve ever heard—was lost on me when first delivered. The setting was a strange one, not stereotypically a venue for humor. I was in fifth grade and summoned to my parents’ bedroom for a chat with my father. The formality of this secret audience confused me, but I soon discovered the reason for this private conversation. My father was poised to deliver “the talk,” this set piece of nascent adolescence, his primer on “the birds and the bees.”
Though, my father wouldn’t have used a phrase like “the birds and the bees.” Dad, a physician, always used the technical terminology, the exact terms, the proper names for all the parts. For this reason, my playground sex vocabulary was a bit more academic than my peers’. While I had to play catch up to learn some of the more vulgar language, I knew what Fallopian tubes were when I was ten.
My father’s puberty speech was more like a medical lecture. I don’t think he had diagrams, but the granularity with which he spoke about reproductive organs bewildered me. Towards the end of his presentation—and it felt this way, absent the slides—I could tell that he was building towards a punch line. “Now remember, Vince,” he said, “there’s a vas deferens between the male and female anatomy.”
My father used to refer to puns as both “the highest and lowest form of humor.” To many, a pun is an earworm, an unwelcome irritant, a turn of phrase that can seem simultaneously pretentious and lowbrow. But punning has existed for as long as we’ve used words, or, so argues John Pollack, the author of The Pun Also Rises. Pollack is a highly credentialed punster, a winner of the annual O. Henry Pun Off World Championship. In his work, he excavates pun lore from Hawaii to Nigeria to ancient Mesopotamia—this last region explored in a section titled “Babble On.”
In addition to his pun history, Pollack offers theories on wordplay’s role in human creativity. To arrive at his conclusions, he explores the biological basis of punning, and strips down to basic questions like, “How does the mind actually process sound and associate it with meaning?” Using evolutionary terms Pollack comes to believe that pun progress is human progress. His conclusion, that puns “keep us from taking ourselves too seriously, sharpen our capacity for creative thinking…keep our minds alert, engaged and nimble in this quickening world,” is one I’d certainly like to believe.
But, I know I’m biased. I’m my father’s pun.
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.