The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics (TLC Tour Review)

April 15, 2011

Book cover for "The Pun Also Rises" by John Pollack.Title: The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics

Author: John Pollack

Publication Year: 2011

Pages: 224

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Review copy from the publisher, for TLC Tours

From the cover:

A former word pun champion’s funny, erudite, and provocative exploration of puns, the people who make them, and this derided wordplay’s remarkable impact on history.

The pun is commonly dismissed as the lowest form of wit, and punsters are often unpopular for their obsessive wordplay. But such attitudes are relatively recent developments. In The Pun Also Rises, John Pollack – a former World Pun Champion and presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton – explains why such wordplay is significant: It both revolutionized language and played a pivotal role in making the modern world possible. Skillfully weaving together stories and evidence from history, brain science, pop culture, literature, anthropology, and humor, The Pun Also Rises is an authoritative yet playful exploration of a practice that is common, in one form or another, to virtually every language on earth.

At once entertaining and educational, this engaging book answers fundamental questions: Just what is a pun, and why do people make them? How did punning impact the development of human lang; uage, and how did that drive creativity and progress? And why, after centuries of decline, does the pun still matter?

I don’t think I even picked up on half of the puns woven throughout this book, and I still loved it.

Pollack has an intense love affair with language and wordplay, and that obvious affection comes through the pages of this book constantly. It’s there in the way that he tells his own stories, in the way that he approaches the historical and anthropological knowledge that he’s gleaned while researching the book, and in the way that he retells anecdotes from hundreds of years ago. And his love for language is infectious. I found myself wanting to know even more, and really looking forward to the next analysis or the next historical tidbit, even though I’m usually not much for linguistic history. What made it interesting was how Pollack wove it all together and made the reader understand just how important punning is and has been – for the evolution of our language, yes, but also for the evolution of our species overall. The author brings that together in one interesting statement, near the end of the book:

It’s about freeing our imagination to leap from one idea to the next to the next, even when those leaps seem illogical or impossible. And it is precisely that capacity to link wildly disparate ideas that enabled people, through thousands of generations of trial and error, to move from cave to skyscraper to space station, and from drum to telegraph to iPhone.

The Pun Also Rises is a fabulous mixture of things, all coming together to reach that goal. Pollack wants you to love language as much as he does; he’d also love for you to love punning, but he’ll settle for a genuine respect for the wordplay art form. He goes way beyond approaching the pun as a form of humor, and really goes at it from the perspective of the pun as an exploration of what our language can do.

One of my favourite quotes from the book was this: “Puns reveal a mind free to roam frontiers of possibility, without shame or fear of being wrong.” This was the most important thread running through The Pun Also Rises for me – that punning is about using our language to the best of our abilities, and stretching it beyond the reaches of where it would go in everyday, normal use.

It’s about expanding your horizons, and Pollack happens to approach that lesson through the medium of linguistic exploration. If you’re at all interested in language, and how it has shaped humanity, read this book. You won’t be disappointed.

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