Puns have a bad rap for being corny. But, when done well, they’re an intelligent form of communication with the potential to bond people.
When you think of puns, you probably think of groan-inducing dad jokes like, “Did you hear about the restaurant on the Moon? Great food, but no atmosphere.” Or, “Need an ark to save two of every animal? I Noah guy.”
Linguistic puns like these either exploit the different meanings of a word (atmosphere: the gases that surround a planet/the pervading mood of a place), or the fact that two words or phrases sound alike (“Noah” and “know a”).
But puns can be visual as well, exploiting the similarities between two objects or images. For example, using fruit to represent celestial bodies against a black background, or an eggshell to replace glass in a broken lightbulb.
Buildings, or other man-made objects that look like faces, are also common visual puns. So are faces and creatures made out of food. Even emojis can be visual puns, with peaches, for instance, standing in for butts.
“Punning is probably as old as language itself,” says John Pollack, winner of the 1995 O. Henry World Pun-Off Championships and author of The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Just Some Antics. “And, there is evidence of visual punning going back 35,000 years or more, long before the invention of the first phonetic alphabet, when people were still living in caves in Europe and the Middle East.”
But, punning is about more than mere substitution or verisimilitude. It’s about the layering and amplifying of meaning through economy of language, be that language written, spoken, or visual. Take this image of a balloon crossed with a hand grenade, for example.
It’s a brilliant visual pun, not just because the balloon is green and looks like the body of a grenade, but because balloons and grenades have something else in common—they explode! Well, balloons pop, but close enough. Switch out the balloon for a tennis ball or a lime and you’ve still got a visual pun, but it’s not nearly as satisfying.
The other thing that makes this particular pun so effective is that you can still see that the balloon is, in fact, a balloon. If the artist turned the balloon so the knot was no longer visible, the pun wouldn’t succeed.
True, the resulting object would look more like an actual grenade, but it would cease to be identifiable as a balloon and our enjoyment of the pun comes from knowing that it’s both—and discovering the previously unseen connection between them.
It’s this “Aha!” moment of discovery that’s at the root of our collective love of puns—visual or otherwise. “Although, in recent year, puns have been relegated to the category of stupid jokes, they’re not intrinsically humorous,” Pollack says.
True, when we encounter a new pun, our instinct is to laugh (or at least smile and groan a bit), but that’s really just our body’s way of processing and expressing the excitement we feel at any moment of discovery or triumph. It’s like the feeling you get when you finish a jigsaw puzzle or fill in the last word in a crossword. Suddenly, it all comes together and you are, even if only momentarily, elated.
Puns are further enhanced by context. Take the below compositions of polar bears floating on icebergs.
The visual pun here is that the icebergs are made out of “disposable” white plastic bags, the message being that our reliance on petroleum-based products, like plastic bags, is causing catastrophic habitat loss for polar bears.
Ice sheets that have existed for millennia are breaking apart and disappearing, stranding the poor polar bears in rising seas filled with garbage.
Images like these aren’t just about exploiting the visual similarity of ice and plastic bags, but about communicating something deeper and richer in as elegant a way as possible.
Puns can also combine visual, spoken, and written language, like a drawing of a small chili shivering above the phrase “I’m a little chili.” Or, two heads of lettuce wearing birthday hats, accompanied by the phrase “lettuce celebrate.”
Not exactly sophisticated, but cute. Certainly cute enough for a T-shirt or a bubble-lettered tote bag. If you do a Google search of the term “visual pun,” these are the kinds of images that come up.
They’re cartoonish and a bit juvenile, but that’s why they’re massively popular. They’re bright and colorful and easy to understand. They give you that rush of discovery without making you work for it.
But puns, like so many things in life, are generally better when they’re harder won (or at least seem that way). This is not to say that a good pun should be complicated to the point of being torturous. Far from it.
Puns should be quickly and easily understandable. But, what is quickly and easily understandable to one group of people may be completely impenetrable to another. And, that’s where puns get really interesting.
Take, for instance, puns that require knowledge of more than one language, like this one: “Why do the French only eat one egg for breakfast? Because one egg is un œuf.” Un œuf is French for “one egg,” but phonetically, it sounds almost identical to the English word enough.
An English speaker with no knowledge of French would hear this joke and it would go completely over their head. But, a person who spoke French and English would at least get it, even if they didn’t fall down laughing.
What’s more, in understanding it, they’d feel a certain kinship with the person who said it, a connection having been established between the two of them through their shared knowledge of more than one language.
Similar connections are also possible through visual punning. For instance, images that reference other works of art, like Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” from the Sistine Chapel.
Now, this particular painting is one of the most famous in the world—replicated on everything from dorm room posters to cookie tins—but catching the reference still requires at least some knowledge of art and art history.
And, if these images were shown to a group of people, those who caught the reference would feel a connection to each other that would actually enhance their enjoyment of the images and bond them together, even if only briefly.
In this way, puns are actually a tool for building community. That’s because, when people understand a pun, they feel a connection to the other people who understand it and feel superior to those who don’t. That might sound a little snotty, but it’s really just human nature.
After all, everyone likes to feel smart, and catching a pun that others don’t—or that you believe others might miss or struggle with—makes you feel just that.
It also connects you to all the other smart people who also caught that pun and to the person who created it in the first place.
And, in the event that pun was used in an ad, it connects you to the product that ad is selling and gets you that much closer to actually buying it.
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- The Influence of Folklore on Fashion
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- Chucky? Annabelle? How Dolls Became a Symbol of Horror
Cover image via Fischer Fotostudio.