Monday, September 14, 2020

The Fowl Affair, or How I Temporarily Swore off Puns

I once wrote about a chicken that refused to die and called the article “The Fowl Affair.” Not everyone was amused, and I was told to go with a different title by one of the editors. I was attached to the title because the idea was hatched in a graduate class years before publication. The professor who taught the class neither encouraged nor discouraged it which I took as tacit approval though he did warn me not to present the paper at lunchtime talks. The title had been a constant companion through my postdoctoral years as I drafted and revised the article so I definitely considered digging my heels in. The article won a prize from the journal and I acquiesced.
    Although common in journalism and marketing, puns are not without controversy in academic publishing. Of course, there is such a thing as going too far. The main criticism of puns in scholarly work is that they are clever but more often than not, seldom move beyond self-congratulations. Anti-punsters believe they rarely illuminate anything or push the conversation forward although as fortuitous homonyms, they are hardly any different than metaphors which academics have embraced wholeheartedly as heuristic devices. Humor in puns make people cringe and groan, irritated at the distraction or even, perceived deflection. Droll at best, puns are indeed lesser than tropes which could be explored at length as turns of phrases. By contrast, puns tend to end conversation because to explain them would destroy the fun in them. Because of this, I myself refrain from puns in my book although one of my manuscript reviewers mentioned (in a positive light so likely, a lover of puns) that there were indeed puns so I might be a natural punster after all.
Puns are delightful. They are whimsical and grant a reprieve from the serious dreariness of scholarly work at times. A pun is as an expression that achieves emphasis or humour by contriving an ambiguity, two distinct meanings being suggested either by the same word or by two similar-sounding words, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Because legal history often addresses topical issues with urgency and immediacy, they could add much-needed levity to our writing. Law review articles are already notorious for being punny – here’s a sample list of delicious titles. My personal favorite is the title of a book by Rebecca J.H. Woods The Herds Shot Around the World: Native Breeds and The British Empire, 1800-1900 (2017).
Puns are supposedly untranslatable although ironically people revel in multilingual puns all the time taking advantage of similar-sounding words in many languages simultaneously. The two languages I am learning at the moment, Persian and Mandarin Chinese, are particularly full of puns. Even within one language, puns are by their very nature interdisciplinary since they exist in several domains at the same time because they layer meaning, humor and irony in a single or few words. Puns suggest evidence and expression of a hidden connection—between mind and material, ideas and things, knowing and nomenclature, and who would not want to be sensitized to these connections. The knowing recognition we get from our audience is very satisfying too and bonds us deeper with one another. I have since returned to puns as my previous post attests.

--Nurfadzilah Yahaya