In Praise of Groveling Wits

I’ve always taken umbrage at John Dryden for slandering puns as the ‘lowest and most groveling form of wit’. I was raised in a punning family. My father was an inveterate and unrepentant punster until life beat the humor out of him. He was the Speedy Gonzalez of puns, and I loved that about him. He wielded puns like a musketeer wields a rapier. Agile, quick, and deadly. My sisters and I would be left holding our wounds, groaning in pain around the picnic-cum-kitchen table while he’d chuckle gently. Every punster knows joy that comes from the infliction of deep, deep agony in one’s verbal victim. My father is still alive, but it’s been decades since I’ve heard a good/bad pun out of him. It was this transformation from impish punster to resigned parrot that, to me, served as the most painful indicator of his diminution. So, to our friend Dryden, I say, “Low? Low?!” I don’t even comprehend the connection of that word to wordplay. Pun. Pun loudly. Pun proudly, and let the gibes fall where they may.

Perhaps that is not entirely true. About puns being lowly, I mean. I did just have to apologize this evening to my flatmate this evening for referring to some game show disaster as a “vowel movement.” Around my friend’s agonized objections–“So bad! So bad!”–I heard the telltale thumping of my mother flipping in her grave. Over the years, my mum’s gotten a lot of exercise in there. A lot.

another boring hunt scene

Another boring hunt scene (BL Gorleston 210b – because I am totally obsessed with this manuscript)

It’s hardly surprising as I had her flipping in her grave before she died. I’d do something sub-standard that usually involved burping, and then she and I would do our little dance. By way of explanation, a super-nervous stomach meant I was basically a human eructor set as a child, and gas, so far as my mother was concerned, belonged ever and only in cars. Any hooo…. I’d belch, count to two, and like clockwork…

“Liesl Ruth! I despair of ever turning you into a young lady.”

To which ever-popular refrain, I would protest, “Oh Mom! I’m not that bad!”

Thereafter followed a sigh to wallop all sighs ever sighed. Desdemona breathing her last had nothing on my mother. Elinor exasperated by Marianne’s declaration of poetic love could not rival her. Little Amy Dorrit, lamenting for her foolish relatives, could only pale by comparison. My mother’s sigh was a masterpiece of controlled exhalation, discrete rather than maudlin, but replete with emotion. It suggested depths of emotion that even she would not admit to. The air echoed with a dozen different, unspoken failures. You could have built bridges with her sighs. Sometimes I did things just to get her to sigh that sigh. It was magnificent.

Maybe she was right. Maybe I was that bad.

Unlike my father, my mother did not pun, but neither did she roll her eyes or sneer at my father or diminish him for his sense of humor. For that, I am unspeakably grateful. I like having that memory of grace between them. I say grace, because there are a lot of people out there of the Dryden ilk who treat punsters like hardened sinners.  Après pun, their faces become as immobilized as an eighteenth-century death masks, and you know—you just know–they’re consigning you to some wholly inappropriate ring of purgatory for molesting their ears.  Why inappropriate, you ask? Because Dante did not create a ring for what other people consider bad wordplay. Not in the Purgatorio, not in the Inferno. Okay, he doesn’t celebrate us in Paradiso either, but that’s fair. So, take that, Dryden. Low, my sweet Aunt Fanny. No pun merits shaming. No, not even if you refer in awe to the giant baked potato on your plate as a potentator. No! Wipe that look off your face, reader. Not even then.

So, the rules of engagement for those who do not revel in “low” wordplay: Sneering? Not acceptable. Do not stretch and elongate your nostrils like some bactrian afraid of infection. Wit is not contagious. The more’s the pity.  Eye-rolling? Acceptable, so long as there’s a twinkle in that eye. Groaning? Perfectly acceptable. In fact, please groan. Loudly. We know that deep down beneath that groan is deep and abiding admiration and no small amount of jealousy that you didn’t get there first.

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