The Philosophy of Puns

What is it

Puns have been called both the highest and lowest form of humor. There is something about them that is at once painful and pleasurable, capable of causing either a cringe or a chuckle. But what exactly is it about word play that we find humorous? Is there something in particular about puns that makes them especially cringe-worthy? How does the humor of a pun compare to other types of jokes? We may know why the chicken crossed the road—but can we eggsplain what’s funny about it? John and Ken get punny with John Pollack, author of The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics.

Listening Notes

We should start the summary of this show with a philosophy pun, but unfortunately we Kant. 

In this episode, John and Ken explore puns. As any regular listener of the show will know, John is a fan word play—but Ken? Let’s just say he doesn’t think it’s that punny. That of course doesn’t deter John, and he sets off to convince Ken that puns are more than just funny—they may also be important to philosophy. While puns may make us laugh (or groan), John argues that any student of language should be fascinated by puns, for studying puns is to study semantics and the deepest nuances of meaning.

John and Ken welcome John Pollock, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, award-winning punster and author of The Pun Also Rises. Pollock describes how he loved puns from an early age, but didn’t recognize them as important until later in life. As he explains to the two hosts, puns are not always jokes; indeed, Pollock argues that they are “humanity’s first hyperlinks”—a creative way of connecting disparate subjects. 

John and Ken are interested in what Pollock has to say—and even Ken laughs at some of the puns he shares. But both remain skeptical over one of Pollock’s stronger points: that puns are foundational to the progress of civilization itself. Pollock says that he too once thought puns were just jokes, but he came to realize that one of humanity’s greatest technologies—the phonetic alphabet—was based on puns. According to Pollock, when ancient peoples first developed an alphabet based on sound, they used different hieroglyphs as puns for similar-sounding concepts. John and Ken are suitably impressed, and, after some talk about how puns are used in some countries to get around censorship laws, the three take questions from callers in the radio audience. The show ends with the three discussing the neuroscience of knock-knock jokes and Pollock sharing stories of President Clinton’s love of puns. 

  • Roving Philsophical Reporter (Seek to 7:36): Shuka Kalantari explores the world of puns, ranging from a neurological disease that makes those afflicted with it make puns constantly to the subtle wordplay of Shakespeare that can take modern audiences by surprise. 
  • Sixty-Second Philsopher (Seek to 46:30): Ian Scholes looks at how prevalent puns are in popular culture, ranging from action movie stars’ one-liners to simple jokes in children books. 

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