Friday, March 8, 2013

No Pun Intended...Really

Language Matters

An article, by Simon Akam, in Slate looks at the death of the pun in the United States, and its effect on the English language. Much of it is due to not only the rise of technology and its particular language, but also to how Americans think and speak with less formality and with more freedom to ignore traditional rules. There is now a thin line, or no line at at all, really, between informal speech and formal writing.

It all goes back to a time 40 years ago and to a watershed event in American politics, Akam writes:
One erudite friend of mine suggests that the current crisis in American wordplay can be traced back to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s and the subsequent tendency to append any scandal-related noun with the suffix -gate. Before Nixon fell, my friend suggests, “All American puns rhymed perfectly and snappily, as if the whole country were a Cole Porter musical.” While this may not be precisely accurate, it is true that in the United States puns have come in and out of favor over time.

John Pollack, the author of The Pun Also Rises, a book-length exposition on the subject, suggests the 19th century was a gilded age for American wordplay. As evidence he points to Abraham Lincoln’s coinage of “Michigander” for a native of Michigan, Congressman Horace Mann and Sen. Lewis Cass’ punning duel in an 1850 debate on slavery ( “This Ass is very big. Then call him CAss; C’s Roman for 100—a hundred times an Ass”), and frontiersman Davy Crockett’s status as both a celebrated punster and subject of puns (How many ears does Davy Crockett have? Three: A right ear, a left ear, and a wild frontier).

In Pollack’s view the American pun persisted through vaudeville and comedians like the Marx Brothers and George Burns, before falling out of favor after World War II, as falling taboos made previously forbidden topics (e.g., divorce, sex, general dysfunction) legitimate material for a new American humor less reliant on wordplay.

When I spoke with Pollack, he, alarmingly, was unperturbed by the current proliferation of nonfunctioning portmanteau puns; adjoinages worry him not. “Phonetic purity is a lovely thing, but we don’t live in a perfect world,” he told me. Indeed, Pollack believes the American pun is currently enjoying a renaissance, as an irreverent trope for an irreverent age and a method of branding new phenomena or technology in a time drenched with information.
Many, if not most of the modern neolisms, hold no appeal to me. They are cold, hard words. Such are our times, and it's true that the English language in America has lost some of its traditional charms. Should it matter? I think so, but for reasons that extend beyond language, since language, an important mode ofcommunication, chiefly reflects what is generally taking place within society's interiors.

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You can read the rest of the article at [Slate]

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