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Puns, dad jokes and shaggy dog stories



I thought readers might appreciate a little levity after the last couple of months’ earnestness and before I go dead serious again, so I’m going to talk about jokes. A warning: my examples will be the kind of jokes that I find funny, and I must refer to a moment many years ago when one of the NUL Vice Chancellors (who shall remain nameless) pleaded with a colleague: “can’t someone do something about Chris’s schoolboy sense of humour?” A pun is a play on words—easy to do in English, as the language has such a huge vocabulary, on account of its multiple origins and influences. A pun plays on a word that has different meanings, or on different words that sound the same. The latter are called homophones: for instance, “soul” the spirit, “sole” the underpart of a foot or shoe, “sole” the only one, “sole” a kind of fish. (For the budding linguists amongst you, the second, third and fourth of these are not only homophones but also homographs, because they have the same spelling; the collective word for homophones and homographs is homonyms). I must try some time in the future to invent a joke using all four “soul / sole” words, maybe in the form of a poem. An example of a joke made from a pun would be the following: “What do you call a blind dinosaur?” “D’you think he saw us?” The punning words do not have to be exact homophones, but must be close, as in the following: “In Cuba an apple pie costs $1; in Jamaica an apple pie costs $1.20; in Barbados an apple pie costs $1.45. These are the pie rates of the Caribbean.” In this example a single word (“pirates”) is punned with a two word phrase with the vowel sound of the second word (“rates”) similar but not identical to the second vowel sound of “pirates” (it’s a longer sound). Here’s another one, of my own invention. Once at the NUL staff club I was sitting on the verandah, idly watching the student cricketers at practice on the bare ground across the road (this may have been just my impression, but I thought the female students were even better—at bowling, batting, fielding—than the males). At a point one batswoman hit the ball with a terrific thwack and it came soaring over the road. I didn’t see where it landed. The students came running across to search for it and eventually decided it must have ended up in the drainage ditch between the road and the club. Several of them jumped into the ditch to look for it there and, just before they emerged victorious, one of my colleagues came out of the club and asked me what was going on. I replied: “Drain stopped play.” (Here the punning words, “drain” and “rain” have similar but not identical sounds). Shakespeare was inordinately fond of puns, many of them obscene. There are some very fine ones in Hamlet, which as well as being a dark and distressing tragedy is also extremely funny, owing to the hero’s irrepressible, though dark, sense of humour. A Dad Joke is a type of pun distinguished by its sheer awfulness. Typically these are told by Dad at children’s birthday parties. As the joke is perpetrated, the children’s eyes roll in embarrassment, while Dad is roaring with laughter at his own wit. Children will whisper to the birthday boy/girl: “can’t you trade him in for a funnier one?” or “how does your Mum put up with him?” It’s not unknown for the children to lock the door so Dad can’t get in and inflict his jokes on them, or to gather what coins they have together and send him down to the pub. It will not surprise you (though it may dismay you) to learn that I have a vast repertoire of Dad jokes at my disposal. Many of them turn on a word or reference point that is too narrowly British to get across to an international audience. But here are a couple that should work—that is, should have you groaning in anguish. A husband and wife are on safari in Kenya. Husband: Look over there, darling. There’s a flock of elephants. Wife: Herd. Husband: Eh? Wife: Herd of elephants. Husband: Of course I’ve heard of elephants! There’s a flock of them over there. I’d like to point out that when that horror was told to me, the husband and wife roles were the other way round. But I’m tired of jokes that turn on the notion of the clever husband and the dumb wife, so I’ve reversed the roles. Just reach for a paracetamol and I’ll tell you another. Teacher: Now, children. Can anyone give me a sentence that includes the words defence, defeat and detail, in that order. Charlie: Miss, Miss, I can, Miss! Teacher: Stand up, Charlie, and tell us your sentence. Charlie: When de horse jumps over de fence, de feet come first and last comes de tail. O.K.—as you insist—just one more Dad joke this week. “I bought a can of fly-spray at the supermarket this morning. I sprayed it all over myself. It doesn’t work. I still can’t fly.” To be concluded Chris Dunton

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