Monday, July 20, 2015
This is not my anemone
"This is not my anemone," I said, with mock surprise. My wife looked down, at the flower bed in front of us at the Chicago Botanic Garden, read the sign I had just read, and sighed.
A pun, and not a very good one. I pronounced it "enemy." But it's really "ane-mone."
So worse than a pun, a mangled pun.
Humor itself is a low form of writing—fragile, fleeting—and puns are a subchamber of that. "He who would pun would pick a pocket" Alexander Pope wrote, in the Duncyiad, perfectly capturing the sense of disrepute related to gimmicky wordplay.
What's the appeal? I think it has something to do with connecting words. There's some kind of hardwired joy, for those unfortunates afflicted with a propensity to pun, with drawing a line from one word to another.
Being funny is secondary. For instance, like many boys, I played with slot cars, and of course became familiar with their various little motor parts. The brushes, the armature. When I came to Chicago, seeing the street name "Armitage" conjured up "armature" in my mind. It wasn't in any way witty, so I didn't say it aloud, but I think that automatic connection, one word to another close to it, flipping meanings, is what drives the punster.
The link forms in mind and there's nothing to do but toss it out. My wife, since she's usually the one around, in usually the victim.
Or benefactor. Sometimes puns are funny. You might remember the Pope quote being spoken by Doctor Stephan Maturin in "Master and Commander," after Russell Crowe's Captain Jack Aubrey makes a pun. He points to a pair of weevils crawling on the table and asks the ship's surgeon to pick one. After some goading, Maturin picks the larger one. The captain is triumphant.
"Don't you know that in the service one must always choose the lesser of two weavils?"
That sets the table aroar, but there was a lot of drinking going on, which usually helps a pun.
Though sober puns can sometimes hit. My wife and I were working in the garden, it was hot, and we were thirsty. She mentioned that she had made some mint iced tea that was waiting inside.
"I put some of this mint in it," she said, gesturing to our tub crowded with fresh mint, which has to be restrained so it doesn't take over the garden.
"That's good, that'll make it extra-minty," I said, then paused, the the pun forming before my eyes. "As opposed to excrementy, which would be bad."
I'm not sure whether that was funny, but she laughed, and I laughed too. Maybe you had to be there.