Clay Hambrick (dclayh) wrote in battle_of_wit,
Clay Hambrick

Oliver Wendell Holmes on puns

- Do you mean to say the pun-question is not clearly settled in
your minds? Let me lay down the law upon the subject. Life and
language are alike sacred. Homicide and verbicide--that is,
violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate
meaning, which is its life--are alike forbidden. Manslaughter,
which is the meaning of the one, is the same as man's laughter,
which is the end of the other. A pun is prima facie an insult to
the person you are talking with. It implies utter indifference to
or sublime contempt for his remarks, no matter how serious. I
speak of total depravity, and one says all that is written on the
subject is deep raving. I have committed my self-respect by
talking with such a person. I should like to commit him, but
cannot, because he is a nuisance. Or I speak of geological
convulsions, and he asks me what was the cosine of Noah's ark;
also, whether the Deluge was not a deal huger than any modern

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. Thus, in a case lately decided before Miller, J., Doe
presented Roe a subscription paper, and urged the claims of
suffering humanity. Roe replied by asking, When charity was like a
top? It was in evidence that Doe preserved a dignified silence.
Roe then said, "When it begins to hum." Doe then--and not till
then--struck Roe, and his head happening to hit a bound volume of
the Monthly Rag-bag and Stolen Miscellany, intense mortification
ensued, with a fatal result. The chief laid down his notions of
the law to his brother justices, who unanimously replied, "Jest
so." The chief rejoined, that no man should jest so without being
punished for it, and charged for the prisoner, who was acquitted,
and the pun ordered to be burned by the sheriff. The bound volume
was forfeited as a deodand, but not claimed.

People that make puns are like wanton boys that put coppers on the
railroad tracks. They amuse themselves and other children, but
their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for
the sake of a battered witticism.

I will thank you, B. F., to bring down two books, of which I will
mark the places on this slip of paper. (While he is gone, I may
say that this boy, our land-lady's youngest, is called BENJAMIN
FRANKLIN, after the celebrated philosopher of that name. A highly
merited compliment.)

I wished to refer to two eminent authorities. Now be so good as to
listen. The great moralist says: "To trifle with the vocabulary
which is the vehicle of social intercourse is to tamper with the
currency of human intelligence. He who would violate the
sanctities of his mother tongue would invade the recesses of the
paternal till without remorse, and repeat the banquet of Saturn
without an indigestion."

And, once more, listen to the historian. "The Puritans hated puns.
The Bishops were notoriously addicted to them. The Lords Temporal
carried them to the verge of license. Majesty itself must have its
Royal quibble. 'Ye be burly, my Lord of Burleigh,' said Queen
Elizabeth, 'but ye shall make less stir in our realm than my Lord
of Leicester.' The gravest wisdom and the highest breeding lent
their sanction to the practice. Lord Bacon playfully declared
himself a descendant of 'Og, the King of Bashan. Sir Philip
Sidney, with his last breath, reproached the soldier who brought
him water, for wasting a casque full upon a dying man. A courtier,
who saw Othello performed at the Globe Theatre, remarked, that the
blackamoor was a brute, and not a man. 'Thou hast reason,' replied
a great Lord, 'according to Plato his saying; for this be a two-
legged animal WITH feathers.' The fatal habit became universal.
The language was corrupted. The infection spread to the national
conscience. Political double-dealings naturally grew out of verbal
double meanings. The teeth of the new dragon were sown by the
Cadmus who introduced the alphabet of equivocation. What was
levity in the time of the Tudors grew to regicide and revolution in
the age of the Stuarts."

Who was that boarder that just whispered something about the
Macaulay-flowers of literature?--There was a dead silence.--I said
calmly, I shall henceforth consider any interruption by a pun as a
hint to change my boarding-house. Do not plead my example. If _I_
have used any such, it has been only as a Spartan father would show
up a drunken helot. We have done with them.
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