The Highest Form of Humor

Puns are of course the highest form of humor.  But why?

A Mixed Rep

I am deliberately flouting the usual claim, of course, that puns are the lowest form of humor.  (That judgment seems to have been traced back to several sources, including Samuel Johnson.)  The appropriate response to a really good pun is considered to be not a laugh, but a groan:  the better the pun, the louder the groan.

On the other hand, the use of the pun has weighty, even punderous, examples on its side.  The art of punning goes back into ancient times.  Shakespeare himself is estimated to have used over 3,000 puns in his plays.  Even Jesus, as is frequently noted, founded his church on a pun:  “We read in Matthew 16:18: ‘Thou art Peter (Greek Petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra), I will build my Church.’”

In Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, bluff Captain Jack Aubrey is frequently derided by more sophisticated characters for his delight in puns.  I recently ran across a mention in Treason’s Harbour, ch. 2 (p. 45):

. . . Meares, who was only a commander.  A brilliant play upon this name occurred to Jack, but he did not give it voice:  not long before this, on learning that an officer’s father was a Canon of Windsor he had flashed out a remark to the effect that no one could be more welcome aboard a ship that prided herself upon her artillery-practice than the son of a gun, only to find the officer receive it coldly, with no more than a pinched, obligatory smile.

Treason's Harbour coverPersonally, I thought the “Canon” joke both funny and clever; but then, I’m not the one being called a son of a gun.  The attraction to puns is characteristic of Jack Aubrey, though, given his innocent enjoyment of simple pleasures and general good humor (badly represented in the movie version).  I note that even Wikipedia cites an Aubrey pun as an example.

Chain Puns

Those with agile minds can have great fun ‘running a topic’ with rapid-fire pun volleys.  I recall staying up late one night on a high-school retreat with some buddies and Father Bill LaFratta, who outdid us all in puns on a subject like ‘cars’ (and may be responsible, or reprehensible, for my subsequent descent into pundom).  Our family has occasionally gotten into text message exchanges that build off one another, on topics like, for example, Dungeons & Dragons.

David:  Come to think of it, Marx could work as an orcish name . . . and orcs could serve well as the meanies of production.

Rick:  “Keep your head down . . . there’s an orcish Marxman over there, I just saw an arrow go by.”

David:  He was just advocating for an equitable distribution of health.

Rick:  Or death.

David:  And the archmage leading the orcish jacobins could be robes-pierre.

Rick:  And hoping the audience gets the point of his argument.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon coverScience fiction writer Spider Robinson is extraordinarily fond of (and good at) wordplay.  At Callahan’s Place, the fictional bar in his series of stories, Tuesday night is set aside for trading ever more appalling puns on a given topic.  I’m not even going to attempt to reproduce Robinson’s groan-worthy inventiveness; check the stories out for yourself!

Shaggy Dogs and Feghoots

Then there’s the story that ends, after an elaborate build-up, with a pun—a variant of the shaggy dog story.  Snoopy, at his typewriter, occasionally indulges in one of these, as in a recent Peanuts reprint (8/3/2020).  Ideally the pun-ch line will include multiple puns, so as to make a fitting topper for the build-up.  I fondly recall the quintuple pun about immortal porpoises, presented in different forms here, here, and (under the rubric of “dad jokes,” naturally) here.  As in that case, getting the punch line may require knowing some particular phrase or quotation, on which the conclusion of the story is a takeoff, and thus become dated; for example, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  (On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the original phrase in the porpoise pun:  the joke version makes clear enough what the original would have been—at least for comic, as opposed to legal, porpoises.)

The Compleat Feghoot, coverThere’s an entire category for short stories whose conclusion is a pun:  “Feghoots,” named for a series of science fiction stories by Reginald Bretnor, “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot.”  A favorite of mine that isn’t mentioned in the Feghoot article is “The Holes Around Mars,” by Jerome Bixby, who was also (incongruously) responsible for the chilling story “It’s a Good Life,” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode.  The “Mars” story, however, is just good fun all the way through, featuring a spaceship captain addicted to puns, and ending with—Well, I see the text of the story is available at Project Gutenberg, so I’ll let you find out for yourself (if you dare).

Tom Swifties

Tom Swift and his Diving Seacopter, coverTom Swift was the lesser-known science-fictional counterpart to the young detectives Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  All three series were ghost-written by various authors under the auspices of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  Given the provenance, the books were, let us say, not esteemed for their literary style.  In particular, the Tom Swift books were prone to using adverbs, especially adverbs ending in “-ly,” to decorate the supposed plainness of simply using “said” in dialogue.  There’s an example of such dialogue at the Wikipedia page.

A “Tom Swiftie” is a pun in which a speech adverb of this sort is used to make a pun on the rest of the sentence.  By convention, the speaker is always “Tom.”  Hence:

“Close the refrigerator door,” said Tom coldly.

“The man is dead,” said Tom gravely.

But we can get more inventive than that.

“Let’s invite Greg and Gary!” said Tom gregariously.

“We’ve arrived at the camp,” said Tom attentively.

As a dedicated reader of the “Tom Swift, Jr.” series in the 1960s, I’ve always been fond of this variant.

Puns of Opportunity

But we may get the greatest satisfaction from hitting upon a pun unexpectedly.  When a never-before-heard pun evolves naturally out of a conversation, surprise adds to the fun of the sudden (in)congruity.

A writer can enjoy the same effect when they come up with an unplanned witticism.  The unexpectedness may not be evident to the reader, who may assume the author carefully set up the line, but the writer knows better.

Japanese painting of a carp

Utagawa Hiroshige, Suidō Bridge and Surugadai (1857)

I remember the delight with which I happened upon a clinching line for a scene in The World Around the Corner.  In their online game, the characters have come upon an underground pool inhabited by a talking fish, the Carp of Doom.  (I think I chose “carp” based on a hazy recollection that carp were renowned for wisdom in some Asiatic mythologies.)  The fish gives them directions for the next stage of their quest, which, naturally, starts out by taking a tunnel from the underground cavern.

“Clear directions for once.” Badon gave a cheer. “I like it. Onward, up the carpal tunnel!”

Dana wished very much that Badon were physically present. She’d like to throw something solid at him…


The Virtues of Puns

So, puns are fun.  Why am I motivated to call them a high form of humor?

I locate the root of humor in incongruity—things don’t fit together as we expect them to—with the proviso that when things do fit together in an unexpected way, more neatly than we would have supposed, that in itself is a kind of incongruity:  as a child might laugh with pleasure in discovering how puzzle pieces make a picture.  Puns fit this basic concept.  When words don’t work the way we anticipated, but make a new whole (the connection between the two meanings) in an entirely different way, we do tend to laugh with glee—unless we’ve been socially conditioned to regard the proper response as a groan, of course.

Puns are clever.  They reward inventiveness and agility of mind.  (In this respect, they share common ground with creative problem-solving and “thinking outside the box.”)  They’re also playful; they take words lightly and turn them topsy-turvy.  We might consider puns and other wordplay as the intellectual equivalent of kids playing on a jungle gym, turning and stretching and going upside-down.

There’s an interpersonal aspect as well.  In chain punning or following a subject, the participants play off each other.  As in other forms of witty banter, one person’s last remark is the jumping-off place for another person’s next remark.  Thus, there’s a certain form of cooperation involved, like that of a volley in tennis—and, just as in the tennis match, an opportunity for one-upmanship and “counting coup” as well.  I love hearing someone else make a good pun, but I can’t deny that I’m also immediately searching for a “Can you top this?” response.


Charlie Chaplin's Little TrampThere’s a subtler factor too.  A great deal of humor involves a kind of overt or covert meanness.  Puncturing human dignity and pompousness is a classic formula for humor; but doing so tends to involve some degree of pain or humiliation.  When someone—especially a well-dressed man in a top hat—slips on a banana peel, we laugh at the incongruity but ignore the bruised hip and the embarrassment.  Sophie Kinsella’s romantic comedies are great fun; but they frequently involve her heroines in extraordinarily embarrassing situationsCharlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character combined humor with pathos.

I would not go so far as Michael Valentine Smith, of Stranger in a Strange Land, who finally comprehends the laughter of Earth people as a response to pain (ch. 29):  “I’ve found out why people laugh.  They laugh because it hurts . . . because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.”  Pain isn’t essential to laughter; maybe to rueful or ironic humor, but not all humor.  Still, Mike has his finger on this much truth:  humor often does play off pain.

Puns, though, are innocent of this painful aspect.  Only words are harmed or abused.  No people have to be embarrassed for a pun to succeed; it’s only language that gets twisted and skewed and made to do unnatural things.  Even when a pun responds to a “straight line,” it doesn’t normally reflect badly on the previous speaker.  The pun is recognizable as a flight of fancy based on a perfectly innocent phrase, not on the human being who uttered it.  And when people are volleying puns back and forth, each line serves as the straight line for the next flight.  It brings to mind the reference to a nonhuman species of habitual jokesters in David Brin’s The Uplift War (ch. 85):  “To a Tymbrimi, the best jokes were those that caught the joker, as well as everybody else.”

The Downsides

Still, a pun is not always entirely harmless.  The punster’s affectionate ‘abuse of words’ can lead to excess.

For one thing, as with other forms of wordplay, punning requires familiarity with the language.  Wikipedia, discussing the rhetorical use of puns, observes:  “A major difficulty in using puns in this manner is that the meaning of a pun can be interpreted very differently according to the audience’s background and can significantly subtract from a message.”  For the same reason, puns are likely to be untranslatable.  The connections between words, their similarities in sound or written form, will not be the same in another language.  This kind of problem occurs in translation generally, as noted by my critique buddy Blandcorp in a recent blog post.  It affects puns along with all forms of art that depend on the specific nuances of words.

It’s also possible for puns to be abused in social situations.  I learned early on, when I took up punning as an avocation, that simply responding to people’s remarks with a stream of puns wears out its welcome pretty quickly.  (In extreme cases, one might find one’s conversational partners inclined to take punitive measures.)

The reason is that a pun, by its nature, derails the conversation.  It diverts our attention from the meaning of a previous remark to its verbal form.  A momentary side trip of this sort may be entertaining, depending on the context.  But if I keep repeatedly making these side trips, I’m getting in the way of the conversation other people are trying to have.  I would be frustrating those who are trying to talk, because the puns interfere with making sense in the language.

It’s one thing, then, to pause with like-minded friends to engage in a pun war (or pun festival).  In ordinary conversation, though, puns are best used sparingly, like seasoning in a dinner dish.  (A pun out of season goeth before a fall, we might say, or even before a winter of discontent.)

In other words, we should pun with moderation, as in all things—even in the highest form of humor.

A Character By Any Other Name

Last time we talked about the complications of naming babies.  Of course, parents have only a few children.  But writers have to name a lot of characters.  Coming up with the right names is tricky; some writers are better at it than others.  Let’s look at how they meet the challenge.

The Familiar

If you’re writing a contemporary story, you’re in much the same position as a proud parent—except that you know how the person turns out, and you can pick a name that carries the implications you want for the character.  Dickens can name one pleasant pair the Cheeryble Brothers and a less prepossessing soul Scrooge to underline their personalities, in case the reader needs to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer to get the point.  Not all authors have to be quite so explicit about it.

As we noted, there are plenty of books and pamphlets to suggest character names, as well as sites like Behind the Names, BabyNameWizard, or Nameberry.  The pamphlets have become a bit more international over the years:  today’s versions contain names from more countries and languages than they used to.  This can help us avoid what you might call “WASP Name Syndrome,” in which all the names tend to be blandly Anglo-Saxon.

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Consider, for example, early super-heroes, who tended to have white-bread names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen—not to mention the compulsively alliterative Marvel characters like Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Bruce Banner…  We see at least a little more cultural variety these days, even if it’s still hard to shake the alliteration, as with the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.

We’re still in pretty familiar territory when we visit the realm of the historic, or faux-historic—legendary figures living in real or imagined ancient times.  In the Arthurian tales we get ordinary-sounding names like, well, Arthur, as well as less common names (at least at this point in history) like Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan and Isolde, which may at least be familiar through repetition.  An author who wants to be (perhaps) historically more accurate as well as exotic can go for Celtic-style spellings:  Bedwyr instead of Bedivere, for example.  I’ve seen such imaginative renditions of “Guinevere” that you can get halfway through the book before you realize who the author is talking about.  (“Gwenhwyfar,” anyone?)

The Semi-Fantastic

We can do the same thing in F&SF—name our hero Luke, our wizard Ben, pedestrian names like that.  We may want the effect of the plain, traditional name for a particular character—for example, to suggest homeliness or familiarity.  (“His real name is Obi-Wan, but I know him as Ben.”)  This is fine if the story is set, say, twenty years from now, when you’d expect names to be relatively unchanged.  But it’s harder to justify—to make believable—if we’re thousands of years in the future, or in a completely separate alternate world, as with much heroic fantasy.

Note this can also be true in SF:  Star Wars looks futuristic, but we’re clearly asked to dissociate ourselves from any specific connection to the present when we’re told, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…”  The curious reader is likely to wonder, how did these people happen to come up with exactly the same names we use, even without any common (recent) history or heritage?

Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, coverIn Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, refugees from another planet come to Earth and struggle to fit in.  The stories are excellent, but the names sometimes give me pause.  In a story set on the home planet, before they’ve had any contact with Earth, the characters have names such as David, Eve, and Timmy—as well as the less familiar Lytha and ‘Chell (Michelle?).  Why so similar to common Terrestrial names?

Or take the hobbits.  Alongside Sam, Bob, and Rosie we have characters like Frodo, Bilbo, Meriadoc and Pippin.  Tolkien, the master linguist, can explain this—exhaustively (see Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings).  From a narrative point of view, the name-mixture gives us a sense of earthy rustic culture, but also of something a little different from Merrie Olde England.  Tolkien succeeds by being both quaint and quirky.

I’m less sympathetic to George R.R. Martin, who seems determined to give his characters in A Song of Ice and Fire names that are mostly familiar, but misspelled.  If we’re going to have people named Eddard, Catelyn, and Rickard, why not just call them Edward, Cathleen, and Richard—or are we expected to believe that languages in Westeros evolved in almost exact parallel to ours, but not quite?  (I have the same problem with the pseudo-Latin spells in Harry Potter—if you’re going to use Latin, just do it, don’t fake it—though I recently read an article by someone who’s examined Rowling’s quasi-Latin more closely than I and is more forgiving.)

Inventing Fantasy Names

If we’re going for traditional semi-medieval high fantasy, we may want names that are somewhat familiar, but have an antique ring to them.  How do I come up with a fitting title for the mighty barbarian I just rolled up for Dungeons and Dragons?  There are a number of tried-and-true approaches.  As it turns out, TV Tropes has a gallery of naming tropes that cover much of the territory (there’s a list-of-lists at Naming Conventions).

A descriptive name picks out some distinguishing feature:  Erik the Red, Catherine the Great.  Or Charles the Bald, or Pepin the Short, if I’m aiming for humorous or mundane rather than grand and dramatic.  If we don’t like “the,” we can fix on a name like Blackbeard.  Or Bluebeard.  (TV Tropes summarizes the pattern as Captain Colorbeard.)

Naming someone by place of origin (especially in place of a last name) also has a healthy yeomanlike sound to it.  I fondly recall a sturdy D&D character I named John of Redcliff.  A lot of ordinary last names, like Lake or Hill or Rivers, probably started out that way.  If the background allows for it, we can vary the effect by using French (de) or German (von) or other languages’ equivalents.

Occupations also gave us a lot of familiar last names.  “William the Farmer” (to distinguish him from the three other Williams in the village) easily becomes “William Farmer.”  Some of these are less obvious than others:  we may not recall that “sawyer” is what you call someone who wields a saw.

Names that indicate one’s parents—patronymics and matronymics—occur in many languages.  The English have their Josephsons and Richardsons, the Russians their Petrovs and Ivanovnas.

Random alphabet diceScorning these expedients, we can also strike off into the unknown by inventing a name purely from scratch, just for its sound.  This can produce semi-random results—but not entirely random, since speakers of a given language will tend toward combinations of letters and sounds that “make sense” in their language.  TV Tropes’ Law of Alien Names makes some interesting observations about how writers in different genres often approach name generation.

A doctor friend of mine, feeling he wasn’t up to the task of coining a lot of names, used a novel expedient in his D&D campaign:  he used the names of drugs.  This strategy works surprisingly well as long as you stick to obscure pharmaceuticals, which often seem to have been named by plucking letters out of the air (“erenumab”) or by phonetically respelling a chemical term (“Sudafed”).  On the other hand, a fierce warrior character named “Xanax” is going to create some cognitive dissonance for those who know the term in question.

A Variety of Effects

Different writers take different approaches to naming, which contribute to the distinctiveness of their worlds.

At the extreme end of systematic invention stands Tolkien, who once said that he invented his stories and realms only as a place to put his invented languages.  His names add noticeably to the integrity of his imagined world; they hold together so well because they really were derived from a number of separate, fully-developed languages.  We have a pretty good idea whether a name is hobbitish, elven, or dwarven from the sound alone.

Llana of Gathol, coverOr take Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) stories.  Martian heroes and heroines (especially the heroines) tend to have relatively graceful names:  Dejah Thoris, Gahan of Gathol (a place-reference name), Carthoris, Llana.  Male supporting characters and savage green Martians are tougher-sounding:  Tars Tarkas, Mors Kajak, Kantos Kan, Xodar.  Villains’ names are still less graceful:  Phor Tak, Tul Axtar, Luud, U-Dor.  There’s no clear linguistic background for the names, but there’s enough commonality to give us a sense that Barsoomian nomenclature does hold together on a cultural basis.

Telzey Amberdon, book coverThe far future of SF writer James Schmitz yields a completely different style of naming.  Rather than being mellifluously Elvish, like Galadriel or Aragorn, or barbarically guttural, like Tars Tarkas, Schmitz’s names strike me as quintessentially American:  with a contemporary English sound and a sort of casual feel—yet unfamiliar enough to remind us we’re not in Kansas any more.  Recurring character Telzey Amberdon is a good example.  “Telzey,” with the diminutive –ey ending, sounds like a nickname somebody today might bear, but as far as I know, no one actually does.

This laid-back style is characteristic of Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub.  The names have a familiar contemporary sound, but they aren’t actually familiar.  The first names also tend to give few gender clues—which might be related to the fact that Schmitz stories often featured strong female leads.  Nile Etland and Heslet Quillan, along with the single-named Captain Pausert and Goth of The Witches of Karres or Iliff and Pagadan of Agent of Vega, all sound like people we might run into on any street—until we bypass the familiarity of sound and realize we’ve never heard these names before.  The names give Schmitz’s stories a unique feel.


We can see how the names help establish the mood and ambiance of a story.  It says something about The Lord of the Rings that it contains both Gandalf the Grey and Freddy Bolger.  As with other aspects of worldbuilding, the names contribute to the “willing suspension of disbelief” when they help us feel the believable solidity of a consistent background—even if it’s a consistency that includes species or cultural variation.

TV Tropes lists a number of ways anomalies can crop up.  There’s “Aerith and Bob,” where familiar conventional names are mixed in unaccountably with unusual ones.  If a particular character’s name is unlike any of the others, we have “Odd Name Out.”  Using a mix of Earthly languages as sources for names gives us “Melting-Pot Nomenclature”—which may be justified if we envision a future in which today’s nations and ethnic groups have intermixed, as in H. Beam Piper’s future history.

The most thoroughgoing way of establishing a solid background for your names is Tolkien’s:  invent your own languages.  But few of us have the time, patience and talent for that kind of detail.  In practice, we don’t need to go that far.  It’s possible to do the same thing on a small scale by starting from the grass roots:  come up with an interesting name or two and decide to emphasize certain sounds or forms for that language’s words, inventing the rules and common elements (like “de” or “von”) as we go along.

However writers may go about the business of naming, we can appreciate the distinctive flavor given to their stories by how they choose names for their “children”—and if we’re so inclined, we can try out that creative wordplay for ourselves.