January 15, 2015 by libroshombre
James Boswell, famed as the autobiographer and companion of Samuel “Dictionary” Johnson in the 1700s, was a thorough-going scamp. However, he and I are as one when it comes to puns. He said, “For my part I think of no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed, and that a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation.” A “paronomasiac” is a chronic punster, and like anything else, overreliance on punning can quickly become aggravating to everyone else. But applied cleverly and judiciously, a decent pun can be delightful.
Perhaps consequently, I get an above average number of puns sent my way. “Punography,” a list of several dozen examples is a recent arrival, includes some unprintable gems, but among the rest were, “They told me I had type A blood, but it was a type O,” and “I’m reading a book about anti-gravity – can’t put it down.” The Chinese rulers aren’t laughing. They passed laws forbidding puns last November, saying puns are “the misuse of idioms” and cause “cultural and linguistic chaos.”
As TheGuardian.com pointed out, “Chinese is perfectly suited to puns because it has so many homophones. Popular sayings and even customs, as well as jokes, rely on wordplay.” For example, “When couples marry, people will give them dates and peanuts – a reference to the wish ‘Zaosheng guizi’ or ‘May you soon give birth to a son.’ The word for dates is also ‘zao’ and peanuts are ‘huasheng.’” Censors are usually spitting into the wind when they attempt such restrictions. The natural human reaction is to do the forbidden, and they will. The Chinese already use the characters for “River Crab” which sounds like “harmony” when pronounced to covertly refer to censorship.
Meanwhile, in English we’re adding weird words willy-nilly. Ben Zimmer, author of the Wall Street Journal’s “Word on the Street” column reported this month that a bevy of new words are vying for inclusion in our daily vocabularies. “Oxt,” for instance, is being promoted by a pair of “interactive designers” to connote “the one after the upcoming one.” So instead of “the Tuesday after this coming Tuesday,” we can say “oxt Tuesday.” Several are based on the ever-present “text,” such as “textruption (when a conversation is interrupted by texting), and “textative” (someone who texts a lot). Two new coinages I like are “curiositarian” for “a curious person,” and “honkerbonkers” to replace the worn-out “awesome.”
The U.S. is a glass house, when it comes to forbidding other languages. American politicians rear the ugly “English only” banner every so often, including recently, but it reached its apex in Iowa, when William G. Harding was governor. This was during World War I, and German spies and terrorists were thought to be everywhere. German was the second most popular language in the U.S., but public speaking of it was considered suspicious behavior, and even German measles were re-named “liberty measles.” Harding’s edict included forbidding religious use of German, even in the home, saying “There’s no use in anyone praying in other languages than English. God is only listening to the English tongue.” In the Midwest alone over 18,000 people were charged for violating the English-only statutes.
A call to the public library reference desk revealed that fifty-seven languages are spoken by students attending local public schools. Programs like the Literacy Council of Alaska’s excellent English as a Second Language, or ESL, classes are marvelous for helping those who want to better assimilate our culture. However, there are many English-speakers who want to move in the other direction, and they can utilize the public library’s Mango database from home. It’s fun, easy to use, even tracks your progress, and Mango offers Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese) , German, Pirate, and sixty-one other languages.
Become capable of asking your Chinese friends, “What’s Irish and stays out all night? Patio furniture.” Then again, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., father of the famed Supreme Court Justice, held that “A pun does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide.”