Monday, August 19, 2013


We need games. We know what all work and no play does to Johnny, and who wants to be a dull boy? The popularity of sports is, of course, the prime example of the role of games in our everyday life. Just try to imagine a world without sports and what that would do to the personality of millions of people: What would the passion expended on sports turn to instead? More crime? More religious fanaticism? More assorted acrimony?

But, even more salient is what we read in the recent obituary of the historian Pauline Maier: “Politics,” she wrote, “in a real sense was the first national game.” (I am not sure about what she meant by “in a real sense,” but never mind.) And so it still is, as witness the televised political debates, most recently among candidates for mayor of New York: all vague promises and intense one-upmanship and a rather gamy one at that.

Even more with us than politics is language. The one thing in quotidian use is words, words, words, to quote Hamlet. And with those words comes wordplay, the games played with words, rather than with balls, bars, or weapons. Which raises the question of what sports and discourse have in common.

Take games in the panem et circenses sense: why our intense fascination with circus artistes? It is threefold. First, surprise. What the circus artiste and the artist (paintier, musician, poet, novelist etc.) have in common is the ability to astonish us. The ability, say, to stand on one foot on the high wire. Or, in the case of the artiste’s relative, the athlete, to be able to jump higher or farther than anyone else. So too to produce an astounding poem, painting or song.

After surprise, comes admiration, involvement. That is to say, our feeling as audience or spectators, somewhat presumptuously, of somehow being part of the achievement: what good is prestidigitation  or  a championship without an audience? In other words, a sense of participation, even from where we merely sit and watch or listen or read.

Finally, pride. Pride that we know all the baseball scores, or the various roles of an actor or ballet dancer, or how a magic trick is done. Or that we played poker with a movie star, or had dinner with a prima ballerina assoluta. Or that we know every aria in a given opera. In other words, a kind of identification.

Now take wordplay, which also reaps a triple response. First surprise: How amazing! Second, admiration: How damn clever! Third pride: How smart of us to get the joke, to recognize and cherish the achievement. Who else would have so appreciated this pun, this witticism, this stylish turn of phrase?

Probably the prime example of wordplay is the pun. Consider, however, the apt yet illogical response to someone else’s verbal winner: “My word!” Surely it should be “Your word!” yet so eager are we to partake and to appropriate it that we illegitimately ejaculate “my.”

Yes, the pun, which in its grander synonym is the paranomasia, carrying its own definition coming from the Greek for “beside” and “to name.” In other words, giving a word a parallel yet different meaning by some slight change in sound, spelling or merely context. Exhibiting a skill similar to (and perhaps no lesser than) some circus or athletic feat.

Puns have borne the unjust brunt of constituting in many minds—including that of one of my former editors—“the lowest form of wit.” To which my response is that anything good enough for a mainstay in both Shakespeare and James Joyce is good enough for me. Alternatively, even the lowest form of wit is vastly preferable to the absence thereof.

But really and truly, why “the lowest form”? Take only two examples from an admirable book, Walter Redfern’s “Puns” (Basil Blackwell, 1984). The year, I’d like to think, not coincidentally that of George Orwell’s masterpiece for bad or well.

Example 1. Redfern writes, “Exploiting the literal level of tired metaphorical phrases can reveal a subtext; here again the pun unearths: ‘An atheist is a man with no invisible means of support.’” Attributed, I hope rightly, to John Buchan, an unfairly underappreciated writer. What exactly does this pun unearth? The courage of the atheist, his staunchness to go on without the lulling comforts of religion—which the irony nicely underlines.

Example 2. Redfern: “Sometimes we are offered an unlikely double helping, as in the Hollywood anecdote of the Jewish writer who went to the plastic surgeon. One of her friends remarked: ‘I see you’ve cut off your nose to spite your race.’ ‘Yes,’ replied the writer, ‘Now I’m a thing of beauty and a goy forever.’” This is rather like battling banjos, proof that punning can be a sport for two.

There is joy indeed in this. Just as a prize-winning sonata is a triumph for the composer, and a winning discus throw a coup for the athlete, a potent pun is a victory for the punster, to say nothing of the delight for his hearers. Of course, for the surprise factor to obtain, the pun has to be produced rat-a-tat, as a swift, unexpected comeback. Hesitancy, excogitation, greatly diminish the pun’s efficacy. Like, for instance, a greeting card well after the actual birthday, when it does not feel like a festive gesture anymore.

To be sure, when published in a piece of writing, time delay is no longer a problem, as when Kenneth Tynan’s review of “The World of Suzy Wong” came out in due times as “The World of Woozy Song.”  A spoonerism that, which is another form of wordplay. Similarly impressive was James Joyce referring to himself in writing as Germ’s Choice, a piece of heroic gallows humor considering how many maladies he suffered from. Names especially elicit punning; I speak as someone who has been duly kidded with Simple Simon and Simon Sez, though, regrettably, seldom if ever with Simon Pure.

A pun or some other wordplay performs handsomely as an aide-memoire. A truly great pun is unforgettable and stays with you for a lifetime. There are two examples I wish to adduce, though neither of them is English. First a German one, from a poem by Erich Kastner. (I have no umlaut, and “Kaestner” would not register with readers who don’t recognize it as a somewhat feeble but customary remedy for that lack.) Anyway, that lovable writer has a brilliant poem about the life of group performers of the Rockette variety, “Chor der Girls.” He refers to their “ewig gleiche Beinerlei.” Though nothing kills a joke like having to explain it, allow me to point out that in German “Bein” means leg, and “Einerlei,” sameness or monotony. Thus the eternal  sameness or monotony of a lifetime of  endlessly high-kicking chorines’ legs.

Now for a favorite piece of French wordplay, attributed, I hope rightly, to the great poet Alfred de Vigny, whose wonderful lyrics could use an occasional bit of levity. It is a distich of alexandrines: “Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime,/ Gallamant de l’Arene a la tour Magne a Nimes.” (Again, please excuse my lack of accent marks.) In English: “Gall, lover of the queen, went in a spirited walk./ Gallantly from the Arena to the Magne tower at Nimes,” with reference to two landmarks of the town: the Roman arena and the famous tower. Punning hexameters from alpha to omega, a rhyming pun of epic proportions! Reminder: In French prosody, unlike in English, homonyms are allowed, the equivalent of rhyming words like “bread” and “bred” in English (bad) or “lait” and “laid” in French (okay).

Another popular form of wordplay is the palindrome: a word or whole phrase the same when read forward or backward. Most famous English ones are “Madam, I’m Adam” and “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” about the latter of which the excellent J. A. Cudden writes (in his invaluable “Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory”): “Attributed apocryphally to Napoleon, who, alas, spoke no English.” In his book, Cudden lists a good many other examples, as he does also of such related word games as he acrostic. Palindromes may serve no heuristic purpose, but what I would dub their ambidextrousness  is a pleasure to witness.

The acrostic, incidentally, has a good many practical uses, comparable to acronyms such as the IRA or the USA. But let me adduce a more literary example. a splendid love sonnet by the fine but underrated poet John Peale Bishop, entitled “A Recollection,” which is really an acrostic. It begins: “Famously she descended, her red hair/ Unbound and bronzed by sea-reflections, caught/ Crinkled with sea-pearls. The fine slender taut/ Knees that let down her feet upon the air” etc. Now if you read vertically down the first letters of the fourteen lines, you get “Fuck you, halfass.” Cognoscenti tell me that the obscene mockery was aimed at Nicholas Murray Butler, famous president of Columbia University. Be that as it may, the poem demonstrates how language can be simultaneously lyrical and satirical, with double meanings the stock-in-trade of wordplay.

Yet a further form of wordplay is what I would call the reversal, of which I immodestly quote one of my own examples that I had modestly forgotten until I was reminded of it by an interlocutor who recalled it. It seems that I referred to a certain female as being as homely as sin and as sinful as home.

Anagrams, too, are a popular word game, usable for comic effect. Thus Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, invented a Welsh-sounding town called Llareggub. A hint to the uninitiated: read it backward and see what you get--a comic way of being obscene.

And then there is the double meaning. A famous example has Buonaparte, as Napoleon was known in Italy, accosting a hostile Italian monk with the accusation that all friars were scoundrels. Came the reply, “Non tutti, ma buona parte.” A dig too clever to be punishable.

Well, enough is enough. Too much play and no work make Johnny a dull jerk.
Sufficient unto the day is a reminder: unlike swordplay, wordplay never seriously hurt anyone, though it may have punctured many an inflated buffoon.


1 comment:

  1. I was listening to Bernstein's Sym. no. 1,
    "Jeremiah", in all its glory
    When I heard a Broadway touch, and thought
    They should call it "West Wall Story" ---

    And if that seems a bit too blunt,
    They could call it "On the Desertfront".