That the Worst Puns Are the Best, by Charles Lamb

'It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect'

Charles Lamb, English essayist
Charles Lamb (1775-1834). (Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"There is a persistent difference of opinion about puns," Max Eastman said, "some finding them cottony in the mouth, and others doting on the taste of them." As Charles Lamb makes clear in this brief essay, he enjoyed the taste of a good pun--that is, one which "will least bear an analysis." 

Word play isn't limited to punning, of course. Consider the essayist's use of metaphor and personification in the opening paragraph.

Popular Fallacies IX: That the Worst Puns Are the Best*

by Charles Lamb

1 If by worst be only meant the most far-fetched and startling, we agree to it. A pun is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit. It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect. It is an antic which does not stand upon manners, but comes bounding into the presence, and does not show the less comic for being dragged in sometimes by the head and shoulders. What though it limp a little, or prove defective in one leg--all the better. A pun may easily be too curious and artificial. Who has not at one time or other been at a party of professors (himself perhaps an old offender in that line), where, after ringing a round of the most ingenious conceits, every man contributing his shot, and some there the most expert shooters of the day; after making a poor word run the gauntlet till it is ready to drop; after hunting and winding it through all the possible ambages of similar sounds; after squeezing, and hauling, and tugging at it, till the very milk of it will not yield a drop further--suddenly some obscure, unthought-of fellow in a corner, who was never 'prentice to the trade, whom the company for very pity passed over, as we do by a known poor man when a money subscription is going round, no one calling upon him for his quota--has all at once come out with something so whimsical, yet so pertinent; so brazen in its pretensions, yet so impossible to be denied, so exquisitely good, and so deplorably bad, at the same time--that it has proved a Robin Hood's shot; anything ulterior to that is despaired of; and the party breaks up, unanimously voting it to be the very worst (that is, best) pun of the evening.

This species of wit is the better for not being perfect in all its parts. What it gains in completeness, it loses in naturalness. The more exactly it satisfies the critical, the less hold it has upon some other faculties. The puns which are most entertaining are those which will least bear an analysis.

Of this kind is the following, recorded, with a sort of stigma, in one of Swift's Miscellanies.

2 An Oxford scholar, meeting a porter who was carrying a hare through the streets, accosts him with this extraordinary question: "Prithee, friend, is that thy own hair or a wig?"

3 There is no excusing this, and no resisting it. A man might blur ten sides of paper in attempting a defence of it against a critic who should be laughter-proof. The quibble in itself is not considerable. It is only a new turn given by a little false pronunciation to a very common though not very courteous inquiry. Put by one gentleman to another at a dinner-party, it would have been vapid; to the mistress of the house, it would have shown much less wit than rudeness. We must take in the totality of time, place, and person; the pert look of the inquiring scholar, the desponding looks of the puzzled porter; the one stopping at leisure, the other hurrying on with his burden; the innocent though rather abrupt tendency of the first member of the question, with the utter and inextricable irrelevancy of the second; the place--a public street, not favourable to frivolous investigations; the affrontive quality of the primitive inquiry (the common question) invidiously transferred to the derivative (the new turn given to it) in the implied satire; namely, that few of that tribe are expected to eat of the good things which they carry, they being in most countries considered rather as the temporary trustees than owners of such dainties--which the fellow was beginning to understand; but then the wig again comes in, and he can make nothing of it; all put together constitute a picture: Hogarth could have made it intelligible on canvas.

4 Yet nine out of ten critics will pronounce this a very bad pun, because of the defectiveness in the concluding member, which is its very beauty, and constitutes the surprise. The same person shall cry up for admirable the cold quibble from Virgil about the broken Cremona; because it is made out in all its parts, and leaves nothing to the imagination. We venture to call it cold; because, of thousands who have admired it, it would be difficult to find one who has heartily chuckled at it. As appealing to the judgment merely (setting the risible faculty aside), we must pronounce it a monument of curious felicity. But as some stories are said to be too good to be true, it may with equal truth be asserted of this biverbal allusion, that it is too good to be natural. One cannot help suspecting that the incident was invented to fit the line.

It would have been better had it been less perfect. Like some Virgilian hemistichs, it has suffered by filling up. The nimium Vicina was enough in conscience; the Cremona afterwards loads it. It is, in fact, a double pun; and we have always observed that a superfoetation in this sort of wit is dangerous. When a man has said a good thing, it is seldom politic to follow it up. We do not care to be cheated a second time; or, perhaps the mind of man (with reverence be it spoken) is not capacious enough to lodge two puns at a time. The impression, to be forcible, must be simultaneous and undivided.

* Originally published in London Magazine, "Popular Fallacies IX: That the Worst Puns Are the Best" was reprinted in The Last Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb (1833).