In which I don’t like (most) puns

Juno, Minerva, and Venus are hanging out at a party. Discordia, trying to cause trouble, throws them that golden apple. She has inscribed it with the dative singular word “Bellissimae,” meaning that the apple is “for the fairest.” Minerva knows where this is going, and doesn’t feel like starting an epic war right now, so she tells the other two that it’s a compliment addressed to the three of them because the inscription is obviously vocative plural.

And that’s why if the goddesses’ first language had been Latin instead of Greek then the entire Trojan War might end up not happening.

(But no, instead they spend what, a decade or two arguing about who’s prettier? At least. And that’s before they ask a mortal to decide, because once they get around to doing that and they start a war about what he said, Achilles is already old enough to fight in said war. And the apple thing started at his parents’ wedding. They’ve been arguing for his entire lifetime.
Just in case you thought it was silly enough already, remember that the goddesses in question are all shapeshifters. They can look like anything. Which makes the entire argument even stupider.)

Speaking of apples, and I promise this isn’t a total non sequitur, picture the Garden of Eden. As everyone knows, Adam and Eve were commanded to never eat that one particular apple, and no matter how much you tell people that the fruit was definitely not an apple nobody cares. It’s one of my many pet peeves. I bet Frankenstein’s monster thinks the same. Anyway, according to one of my professors the misconception of the fruit being an apple goes all the way back to the Vulgate. It’s there solely because St. Jerome thought it would be funny. The adjective for “evil” is “malus,” and the noun for “apple” is “mālus.”  So it was a mālus malus. Yep, it was a pun.

It’s not even a good pun! I usually measure pun quality by how many multiple meanings or references to earlier in the conversation it can manage. To have a chance at being funny, a pun needs to have at least two. The whole point of a pun is that the extra meaning should be foreshadowed and make sense in retrospect.

Take the one about the dyslexic insomniac agnostic who stayed up all night wondering if there is a dog. That pun makes three separate connections, and is therefore a better pun than “I wanted to make a chemistry joke but all the good ones argon.” That one gets only one point. There are multiple meanings of the last word, sure, but the difference in meanings isn’t relevant in any foreshadowed way. Maybe if the chemistry—>argon link were less tenuous.

St. Jerome’s pun is just as bad. Unlike the dyslexic insomniac agnostic one, which has three moving parts that have to fit together, his is just a “this word sounds like that word” joke. If the fruit in question had actually been an apple, then it would be better. As it is, he was just taking two words that sound alike, and one of them was irrelevant. (Actually, whether or not the fruit itself can be called evil is kind of an interesting question, but we can give the punster the benefit of the doubt and assume it can. Otherwise it’d be even worse.) The word “apple” just came out of nowhere. Which is exactly what shouldn’t happen in a good pun.

It’s a bad pun, and it’s a bad “bad” pun. And it’s responsible for one of the more common misconceptions people have. So you agree that this is serious business.

Of course, pun quality doesn’t necessarily correlate to joke quality. That thing with the word “bellissimae” scores a mere two points as a pun. It’s got two interpretations of the word, and the difference in meanings is important in a way that had already been brought up. That’s pretty much the bare minimum for me to not strongly dislike the pun. But I still like the joke, because of non-pun-related reasons like making fun of those characters. And my personal favorite pun is only a three. Despite the existence of higher-scoring ones, that doesn’t make them better jokes.

(“If someone were to hack the multiverse’s wavefunction to exist in as many universes as possible, you’d expect them to pick a superhero name like Max Born.” One point for the double meaning of Max as in “as many universes as possible,” one for Born as in existing in them, and one point for Max Born being the name of an actual quantum physicist.)

Points should also be given for references to famous quotations or sayings, since that’s an additional moving part just as much as keeping the sentence relevant to the situation is. One example that I like because it more or less actually happened. To me, no less. A few people were throwing a basketball, and it rolled away to the other side of a nearby Jeep Rubicon. My turn to shoot was up next, and I decided to just throw it from where it landed. I did (and missed of course; I’m terrible at basketball). Another player asked if I was going to try a particular shot people had been attempting, but it wasn’t my turn anymore because I had just tried a different shot. I had been waiting for weeks for a chance half this good to say, “Alia iacta est.”

Translation: A different one has been thrown. Aside from answering the question (1), it’s referencing the saying “alea iacta est,” (2) swapping out the word for “die” (singular of dice) for the similar-sounding word for “another” (3). And the original saying was allegedly said by Caesar when he crossed the River…wait for it…Rubicon. Four points is multilayered enough for me to consider it a good pun, even if I just got lucky with the type of car involved. I am prouder of that joke than I probably should be.

As long as I’m throwing around dubious Latin puns, I always thought “Dei gratia rex” would be better as “Deo volente, rex.” Because I like making fun of political positions. So to accuse divine right of kings of being too absolutist, what better construction to use than the ablative absolute?
You’ll note that this is a really really terrible pun and whoever invented it should probably be executed. Which the absolutist monarchists might be willing to do, except that they probably wouldn’t regard that accusation as being an insult.

For a very high-scoring pun, read through to the last couple of lines from here (reprinted for the lazy):

While staying with friends he asked where the salt was and they told him it was in a jar on the shelf. When he looked, the jar had fallen over and the salt spilled out. This was it. The chance of a lifetime! "The salt, dear Brutus," he said, " lies not in the jar, but on our shelves. "

Three separate words replaced by similar-sounding ones, one word switched to another definition, and a famous quotation reference, all while the literal interpretation applies perfectly to the situation. A six-point pun, which probably isn’t a record but is high enough that the pun is funny solely because it’s a good pun. That is the sort of thing that makes regular bad puns intolerable by comparison.

My system of pun measurement is not exactly rigorous. It’s way too easy to game, and it’d be nice if it could correlate more precisely with how funny a pun is. For instance, an insomniac dyslexic time-travelling agnostic, who stayed up all tomorrow night wondering if there is a dog. That would score four points instead of three, but is made less funny by the addition. And there could be more adjectives added almost indefinitely, which would improve the score without improving the joke. But I like this way of counting pun quality, at least as a first approximation. If anyone has an improvement or a better system, that’d be good news.


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