The unintended pun in everyday life.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Another Side to the Unintended Pun Theory

I promised I would write about a time I almost drove myself into an accident, as I realized a possible side effect of the Unintended Pun Theory. Here is the story.

First, a little background. I had travelled to Scotland in September of 2008 with a pastor friend of mine. He had been invited there by church leaders to discuss ways the church in the U.S. and the church in Scotland could work together; he had asked me to go along with him, which meant we had a lot of time together on the plane and in the car. Among more sophisticated topics of conversations, we got to talking about puns. He told me a joke, whose punch line is “No pun in ten did.” Very funny. That of course prompted me to explain my now-famous Unintended Pun Theory.

Then in late October of 2008, my pastor friend and I were meeting about our trip. He had been making some home improvements, prompted us to try to remember the word for the thin layer of wood that is used to cover composite material to make it look nicer. We couldn’t think of it, and went on to discuss more important matters. Then, as I drove home from that meeting, a Lynyrd Skynyrd song played on the radio. As I often do when I hear Skynyrd songs, I started trying to think of the lead singer of the band who died in the 1977 plane crash. “Ronnie, Ronnie…what was his name. His brothers are Donnie and Johnny…” both also rock singers. Then I thought of it. And at the exact, I mean the exact instant I thought of the singer’s name, I thought of the word I was trying to think of earlier. The name is “Van Zant”, and the word of course is “veneer”. That’s when I almost drove off the road. Fortunately, I didn’t.

Remember, I am not a cognitive neuroscientist, or research scientist of any sort, but that strikes me as pretty strong anecdotal evidence that something very interesting is going on in the brain, with regard to word/sound/metaphor organization.

Please let me know what you think about this, both metaphorically and literally--what strange things have your brains led you to think or say?

Here's a recent one for the road.
January 24, 2011 During a discussion on the institution of baptism, and whether or not infants should be baptized, someone in the conversation said: “We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
I view this as a "two-deep" pun, since we are talking about babies, and we use water during the baptism. It might even be three-deep, since we throw water on the baby (in a "spinkle" type baptism, or throw the person in the water, in a "dunking" type baptism). Either way, it was very hard for me not to laugh when the person said it, given the solemnity of the conversation.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Puns to Spice Up Your Midweek

A few Unintended Puns from 1992 to spice up your midweek cider.
June 28, 1992
While praying for a friend, who worked as an usher at Baltimore Orioles baseball games, I said: “...that his knees would stand up to the work.”

about April, 1992
I don't have the exact context, but this one is a stand-alone pun: “Spending four dollars a day shouldn't eat up so much of my money.”

July 11, 1992
After a story about several killings at post offices, and how it seemed that supervisors were driving postal workers to anger, Barbara Walters, the famous broadcast journalist, said: “We'll keep you po...informed on any changes at the post office.”
Seems to me that Ms. Walters caught herself as she was about to say: “We'll keep you posted on any changes at the post office”, but realized she didn't want us to think she was making a joke about such a horrible situation. Even people who make a living from crafting words can't stop their brains from making these unintended word associations.
Next time, I'll discuss another side of the Unintended Pun Theory, which hit me so hard while I was driving I almost had an accident.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Factoring the Unintended Pun

In thinking about Unintended Puns, I came to realize that there are a number of ways to slice them--something like a CAT scan--to give us a way to approach their infinite variety. I originally called this a Rating Scale, but that name carried such a heavy implication that one Unintended Pun is "better" than another, I decided to take the neutral, scientific route, and call them Pun Factors. This shows that one pun may have more "flavor" or "strength" in one area or another, but mainly it gives us a way to discuss the brain's ability to generate words beyond the conscious level.

I present this as a starting point, hoping to spur conversation and feedback.

Pun Factors

  1. Fitting: How fitting is the word play based on the context—is the word/term fairly commonly used, or is it “just right” and fairly rare?
  2. Humor: Is the word play outright funny, or simply fun—does it make you laugh, or is it simply interesting that the brain would work that way to produce that combination of words?
  3. Subtlety: How much explanation does the word play require—how obvious or subtle is it? The subtler the better (I think), because that shows the deeper levels of the brain’s organization. On the other hand, this characteristic may link directly with "fitting," such that it is harder to be subtle when it is quite fitting.
  4. Context: Is the quoted sentence a pun on its own, or is it a pun only based on the context? Which is more interesting or complex?
  5. Depth: How "deep" does the word play go--does it deal with one part of the context, or more than one--In all of my records, I think I have only a few that are more than one.
  6. Others?
We have had our first contributed Unintended Pun (thank you, Rachael!), and I would like to use it as our example to apply the Pun Factors.
January 2011 During a workshop discussion on various fabrics, a student asked about fur. The instructor said: “That's a whole 'nother animal.”
  1. Fitting: I would say "very fitting"--"whole 'nother animal" is not a common expression (at least I don't use it very often--if the teacher uses it commonly, then the "fitting" factor would be lower), and it fits the context very well.
  2. Humor: This made me laugh out loud, but of course I'm something of a Pun Aficianado, so I may not be a good judge. What do you think?
  3. Subtlety: Animals have fur, so not much explanation beyond that is needed; but some folks might not get it that quickly. Comparing it to my the Unintended puns in my records, I would say it's about average in subtlety.
  4. Context: The quoted sentence is not a pun on its own, and it does require context. Discussion point: Which is more interesting or complex--a standalone pun or one that requires context?
  5. Depth: This pun is only one "level" deep. I'm thinking if the teacher had said "that's a horse of a different color," which would have had the same basic meaning, we could count it as two deep--1) horses have fur, and 2) fabrics have been dyed, so they have color.
That's it for now. Please post your comments or Unintended Puns.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Psychology of the Unintended Pun

In my first post, I mentioned that I started thinking that Unintended Puns were more than coincidental, and fairly common, when I offended a colleague by laughing when she seemed to be making fun of her own difficulties:
“My stove isn't working, and my refrigerator isn't doing too hot.”

It is these awkward social situations that I am hoping we can help each other avoid.

The first step, I believe, is that when we hear a pun, we must realize we are immediately faced with a one of two dilemmas. If the speaker is not too subtle after saying the pun, the dilemma is easily resolved--we will be faced with a metaphorical or physical poke in the ribs, followed by the speaker saying something like Get it?! , and we can either laugh, or groan, or whatever seems appropriate at that moment.

It is when the speaker is more subtle in general that we have to tread lightly. If he or she never uses puns, you can probably assume this pun is unintended, and simply make a mental note to send it in to your favorite Unintended Pun forum. If he or she is known to tell a pun or two, or if you do not know the speaker well enough to know if he or she uses puns, you have to go on alert. This is where the following guidelines may help. Please feel free to comment on these to help improve them. I have developed them over the years from trial and error, but as with any good scientific endeavor, I would love for these guidelines to improve through further testing.
  1. The speaker says it with no glint in their eyes, and no hint that they expect you to get anything.
  2. To probe a little, you play along as if you think it's an intended pun, and the person still doesn't react. Remember, we don't want to become social misfits, never getting puns, either, in our thirst to not offend anybody.
  3. Important to note: It doesn't have to make you laugh to be worth contributing to the Unintended Pun Forum--many of my recorded Unintended Puns are not funny, except when you take them in their context. In other words, the Unintentional Word Play itself may not be funny--it is the context in which it is said that makes it interesting.
What about guidelines for the radio, TV, or the written word, when you don't know the speaker or writer at all, and they certainly aren't looking at you for a reaction? I think that's a lot of fun, and just the other day, I brought one example to this forum for you to help decide. Part of the Psychology of the Unintended Pun is to determine how and why they are uttered, and perhaps when we have no context, due to its not being spken within a conversation, we have the best scientific soup in which to test our theory. A few more for the road:
December 14, 1991 While describing his dislike of the commercialization of Christmas, a work colleague said: “Sometimes we get wrapped up in the presents.”
January 6, 2011 After explaining options for dinner to my son, which included heating up a can of corn and making hamburgers, I said: “Okay, we'll play it by ear.”

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Meditation on the Unintended Pun (Link)

Here is a lovely meditation on the Unintended Pun, and how much joy and beauty it can bring into our lives. Ms. Cohen sees this marvel of our brains, from "some force not strictly in our command," not as something to discard as vulgar or crude, but as a jewel to admire: "existing in fantastic invisible abundance, contained for example in the very alphabet blocks of our humble speech, and if only seldom deigning to arrange themselves into patterns that met the eye, glittering rather marvelously when they did."

Click here for Ms. Cohen's meditation.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Daily Pun #1

This is the first discovered pun since the blog's inauguration-- which just goes to show that puns really are everywhere in everyday life.

This Yahoo article (click to view) on January 4, 2011 has this line: 
        "This so-called January effect for gold doesn't always pan out."

Is this Unintended or not? You decide.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Introduction: Fun with Puns

Puns are all around us. But many of us go through our lives and never notice, except when somebody says one on purpose and punctuates it with an elbow in our ribs. Many more puns emanate accidentally, and in that case, the observant receiver may end up poking the would-be punster in the ribs and saying, “Oh, I get it!” only to be greeted with a blank stare. This phenomenon is the “Unintended Pun.” My goal is to be the elbow in your ribs—to help you hone your ear (and eye, as we’ll discuss), to discern those puns, and react appropriately and collegially, as the situation warrants (and dodging the blank stare).

Since I could talk, I have enjoyed making puns, and enjoyed receiving other people’s puns. In the 1980s, I read a book named The Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky. One of the points of that book is that connections in the brain are formed around various things, including word sounds as well as word pictures. Later, a work colleague was explaining her home appliance problems: “The stove quit working, and my refrigerator isn’t doing too hot.” I laughed out loud, thinking she was trying to be funny, despite her woes. She looked at me and thought I was making fun of her broken appliances, and was quite offended. This soon led me to think that there was more to Unintended Puns than meets the ear, and I began recording them for some possible future use. The more I thought about it, and the more I heard (and verified by asking loved ones and close friends) Unintended Puns, the more I wished I had the expertise to investigate the brain and deeply understand the connectivity of words and metaphors and speech.

For now, instead of pursuing a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, I’ll start this blog. I’d love to hear from you and get your impressions and experiences. If you’re anything like me at all, we can enjoy this quest together.

I’ll leave you with a New Year’s gift—some of my collected Unintended Puns from the past few decades to whet your appetite and spur your contributions.
November 30, 1989
While discussing aches and pains and broken bones, I said: “I sprained ankles all over the joint.”

August 14, 1992
A contractor had just removed half of the concrete which had covered the backyard of our property in Baltimore. We were hoping to make a nicer yard for our children in addition to improving water drainage. The first step the contractor had done was to pour lots and lots of dirt in the yard. He said: “If I didn’t do it right away, my name would be mud.”

May 20, 2005
I was thinking about how to explain the weather to my Midwestern cousin, who was visiting Arizona. It occurred to me that you have to watch yourself in the summer because of how hot the sun gets. I thought this, but caught myself before saying it: “Out here, everything revolves around the sun.”

May 1, 2009
A work colleague was explaining to me that his girlfriend wants to have a cooking contest, during which a bunch of people will cook meals with the same set of ingredients, all doing it within an hour. He says he’s not sure it will work, since there’s only one stove: “I’m not sure how it will pan out.”

September 23, 2009
My wife is a physician, who specializes in seeing patients with migraine headaches. An e-mail from someone helping her set up a solo practice said: “What I mean is that your positive asset is your practice, though it has many headaches attached with it.”
In the next few days, I’ll share some ideas I have for some “guidelines” on how to distinguish an Unintended Pun from its lesser brethren, the Intended Pun. Also, I’ll posit a sort of rating scale on different axes so we can start thinking about these puns in a slightly scientific way.