Ephrat Livni in Quartz:
Humor me please, and consider the pun. Though some may quibble over the claim, the oft-maligned wordplay is clever and creative, writer James Geary tells Quartz. His upcoming book Wit’s End robustly defends puns and tells the distinguished history of these disrespected witticisms.
“Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit. Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time,” Geary writes. “And the pun’s primacy is demonstrated by its strategic use in the oldest sacred stories, texts, and myths.”
The bible, the Indian epic the Ramayana, and the classic Chinese philosophical text the Tao Te Ching all avail themselves of puns, he notes, though we may not recognize these ancient jokes. The Tao Te Ching begins with a pun, for example. The first line of the text states, “The way (tao) that can be spoken of is not the constant way (Tao).”
Geary explains, “The tao is a physical path, or way, but the Tao is also a spiritual path; the pun brings not only the two sounds and words together but the two ideas, prompting consideration of how to align your physical path (career, life, etc.) with your spiritual path.” It’s thus both a play on ideas and words.