The Pun’s Story

From The New York Times:

Orourke-popup King Charles I’s court jester, Archy Armstrong, lost his job by saying grace — “Great praise be given to God and little laud to the Devil” — at dinner with the archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. The Newspeak of “1984” was meant to preclude, among other things, puns. “Its vocabulary was so constructed,” George Orwell wrote, “as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings.” And although the pun seems always to have had its comic uses, it is also a formal rhetorical device. The pun can be employed seriously, as when Lady Macbeth goes to smear the blood of murdered Duncan on some innocent servants: “I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal, / For it must seem their guilt.” The problem with Pollack’s historical survey of puns is that it misses the greatest puns in history. He ignores many of the best practitioners of the idiom — Jesus and Sir Charles Napier, to name two. Jesus said to his disciple Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” That was not only a pun on Peter’s name, which means rock, but also a pun on the character of Peter, who, in the garden of Gethsemane, would deny Jesus thrice before cockcrow. Napier led an unauthorized conquest of the Indian emirate of Sind and is supposed to have sent Queen Victoria a one-word dispatch: “Peccavi.” (Latin for “I have sinned.”)

Pollack mentions Abbott and Costello only in passing, without description or transcription of their “Who’s on first?” exchange. He also gives short shrift to the Marx Brothers, even though the “contract scene” in “A Night at the Opera” contains perhaps the 20th century’s most famous pun.

Groucho: “That’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a ‘sanity clause.’ ”

Chico: “You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Claus.”

More here.