Bonfire of the Hannities

In the recent debate over the Republican drive to cut funding for National Public Radio, Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) delivered a blistering, punning attack on those who consider NPR to be “a four-letter word.”

“My constituents turn to KUT because they want fact-based, not faux-based, not Fox-based coverage,” he thundered from the floor of the House, referring to his local NPR affiliate. “Like their continued assault on PBS, these Republicans just can’t tell the difference between big government and Big Bird.”

While Washington’s partisan vitriol has certainly intensified in recent years, punning itself traces a long and bi-partisan tradition in American politics. In 1787, for example, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Abigail Adams complaining about the number of puns flying about at the Constitutional convention, as the delegates in Philadelphia debated how best to unite a divided nation.

“The most remarkeable [sic] effect of this convention as yet is the number of puns and bon mots it has generated,” Jefferson wrote. “I think were they all collected it would make a more voluminous work than the Encyclopedie. This occasion, more than any thing I have seen, convinces me that this nation is incapable of any serious effort but under the word of command. The people at large view every object only as it may furnish puns and bon mots; and I pronounce that a good punster would disarm the whole nation were they ever so seriously disposed to revolt.”

And so a noisy democracy – and punditocracy – were born. Pundits, of course, long predate the United States. Sanskrit in origin, the word pundit denoted the wise man needed to unpack the ambiguities of sacred text. Perhaps fittingly, opinion is divided over the pundit’s connection to the word pun. While the Oxford English Dictionary gives up on tracing the pun’s etymological roots beyond the 1670s, strong circumstantial evidence suggests that both pun and pundit may have been imported by sailors with the British East India Company, who also brought back words such as wit, jungle, guru, pariah and shampoo.

While many critics and curmudgeons are now quick to dismiss the pun as juvenile or low humor, this attitude is relatively new. For much of recorded history, punning – at its most basic, the decoupling of sound and meaning and their recombination – was a respected rhetorical tool. This was certainly true for much of American history, too.

Early colonists noted punning among Native Americans they encountered, and ministers punned from the pulpit. Benjamin Franklin was a prominent practitioner, as were Davy Crockett, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Graham Bell. For a time, puns even held center stage on Capitol Hill, though not necessarily in good humor.

In the fierce 1850 debate over slavery and its extension westward, puns became weapons of ridicule. Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, who just two years earlier had been defeated in a run for the White House, favored letting voters in a given territory decide whether slavery should be allowed or banned. The abolitionist Congressman Horace Mann argued against allowing slavery anywhere. And when Cass mocked him in a speech, punning off his name, Mann launched a sharp counterattack.

“In his last speech, General Cass deems it not unworthy his Senatorial dignity to pun upon my name,” Mann said. “Did it not occur to the General that his own name offers the most grievous temptation for punning?”

Calling the Democratic Senator a “thistle-eating donkey,” Mann proceeded to run off several insulting, punning rhymes, among them the following: “This Ass is very big. Then call him CAss; C’s Roman for 100—a hundred times an Ass.”

Having vented, Mann proposed a truce, suggesting that if Cass “is now disposed to say ‘quits,’ on the score of punning, I am; and will draw no more upon the asinine or Cassinine associations which his name suggests.”

Not that this put an end to such puntification. For years after the GOP’s 1994 takeover of the House, a favorite Democratic applause line became “It’s no wonder they’re named Doolittle, Delay and Lazio!” Whoopi Goldberg caught flak for making punning allusions to “bush” in the lower case. More recently, on the other side of the aisle, Republicans – and headline writers – couldn’t resist punning about the legal “wrangle” of Charlie Rangel.

The noted anthropologist Gary Gossen theorizes that punning is more prevalent in cultures with more taboos and power disparities, because it allows people to address sensitive topics through subtexts. “They don’t do it just because it’s funny; they do it to comment on highly asymmetrical relations,” he said.

Not that punning in politics can’t be self-directed or playful. Coolidge ran for President with a punning slogan that became a popular song, “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” During the 1932 campaign, FDR supporters made badges in the shape of his famous dog that urged voters to “Fala me to the polls.” Later, Eisenhower partisans proudly proclaimed “I like Ike.” And in 2008, conservative opponents of front-runner Barack Obama punned off of Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster with a playful parody that proclaimed “Nope.”

It’s a similar spirit of wordplay that informs the Washington Post’s ever-popular neologism contest, in which readers offer new definitions of existing words. One favorite from some years back was the punning redefinition of “flabbergasted” as “appalled over how much weight you’ve gained.” Back then, people laughed. But no longer. Combating obesity, apparently, is just another way of promoting “big government.” Or is that Big Bird? Either way, it will cause a flap.

John Pollack

John Pollack is a former Presidential Speechwriter for Bill Clinton. This OpEd is adapted from his most recent book, Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas.