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The Pun Also Rises

The experts (e.g. my wife) say the pun is the most groveling kind of wit, the lowest form of humor. Two-thirds of a pun is PU. I patently disagree! Even the Bard of Avon was a master punster: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York . . .” (Richard III, italics mine).

And although there is a ban on punning for its own sake at The New York Times, a pun is allowed when it speaks for itself, like Maureen Dowd’s “Instead of being the toast of London, he’s toast in London,” a reference in her Sunday column to last week’s Mitt Romney Olympics gaffe in London.

Puns are essential bits of wordplay, and for graphic designers they are visual playfulness. The former might be ephemeral or meaningful depending on the skill of the punster. The latter is often the basis for great logo and poster design.


A duck walks into a bar and orders a beer. “Four bucks,” says the bartender. “Put it on my bill,” says the duck. This pun may not tickle the egghead’s intellect, but it is funny—and like a good pot roast, it can be savored for a long time after first being served. And since we’re on the subject of roasts, who doesn’t laugh at the following Marx Brothers’ routine in “A Night At The Opera”? Groucho, reviewing the fine print of a contract, says to Chico, “That’s what they call a sanity clause.” “You can’t fool me,” Chico replies. “There ain’t no Sanity Claus.” The scene is transcendent. Great verbal puns are as classic as Chopin’s famous “Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor.” Which reminds me of the classic Gone Chopin, Bach in a minuet. And speaking of music: Here’s a lyric by Weird Al Yankovic, the singer known for his baroque puntifications,  for “Wanna B Ur Lovr,” :

I don’t have a library card But do you mind if I check you out? I like your skeletal structure, baby You’re an ectomorph, no doubt

Choice verbal puns are decidedly logical manipulations of language. A pun is its own reword. Take this headline “The Tunnel at the End of the Light” published in Times when the Vietnam War peace talks were being planned in Paris. A switcheroo on “the light at the end of the tunnel,” the headline vividly explained that much more hard work for peace was yet to be negotiated.

Almost as good, though I didn’t come up with it, was the title for my second book, Man Bites Man, about biting cartoons and caricatures and the artists who made them—a play on the notion that “dog bites man” is not news, but “man bites dog” is.


A verbal pun is a play on various possible meanings of a word or phrase, like these barbershop names, Clip Joint and Headmasters. There are also certain words that sound alike but have different meanings, like beauty parlors called Mane Street and Shear Madness. Portable toilet companies are also breeding grounds for puns: Call-A-Head, Sani-Jon, Johnny on the Spot, Johnny on the Potty, Mr. John, Gotta-Go-Johns, and Little John. And how about Port-o-Let, Tanks A Lot, Drop Zone Portable Service, Tee Pee Inc, and A Royal Flush? Many businesses have pun names, like Wok and Roll (Asian food), Wok on Water (seafood), Pane in the Glass (window installer), Florist Gump (you guessed it), and, my high-flying favorite, Hindenburger (flame-broiled hamburgers, referring to the German passenger dirigible that burned to a crisp as it landed in New Jersey on May 6, 1937.)

If you’re a fan of “Car Talk” on NPR, you’ve doubtless heard the Tappat Brothers during their sign-off when they list their staff, including lawyers Dewey, Cheetam and Howe, air-quality monitor Carmine Dioxide, airline reservation manager Will Price Randomly; customer service specialist Begonia Payne-Diaz, director of cosmetic surgery Zbigniew Kuptz, and many more. These all derive from those deliciously puerile grade-school jokes about books and their authors, like “Yellow River by I.P. Daley” and “I Like Fish by Ann Chovie.” Takes you back, right?



Visual puns are triggered by verbal quirks. The illustrator James Grashow made a career out of pictorial punstering, including a large series of woodcut prints based on the word “fly” where all his flies look like their genus: Fire fly, Shoe fly, Pop fly, Dragon fly, and, of course, House fly, to name just a few. Now that we’re all abuzz over the house motif, Grashow’s “Houseplant” series is comprised of detailed woodcarved sculptures of bouquets in which the flowers are typical houses from various locales—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Atlanta. They are beautifully hilarious art pieces.

Seymour Chwast is another accomplished visual punster. His book Bra Fashions By Stephanie is entirely comprised of puns about braziers, including polar bra, bra bra black sheep, umbralla, Brazil, bralesque, erin-go-bra, and abra-ka-dabra—all names that hold up. Which is fitting since Chwast illustrated and I co-produced the 1983 book Not Tonight Dear I Have a Haddock: 300 Ways to Say No to a Man by Erika Heller, which included verbal puns literally illustrated with visual references.


Puns are essential to graphic art and design—and most designers use them. An image where two or more meanings are expressed pictorially is indeed worth a thousand words. In visual language, it’s often necessary to substitute one image for another, or one symbol for another—not just for purposes of jest, but to enhance meaning. The pun is a shorthand method for turning complex concepts into accessible symbols.


Advertising agency: Devito/Verdi, USA


Advertising wins big points with memorable puns. But they must be fresh, not yesterday’s fish. And since we’ve been on the theme of fish, the advertisement for Legal Sea Foods created by Devito/Verdi (above) is so cleverly done, and the verisimilitude of the image so spot-on, that it’s the ad that almost got away. Substituting “Legal” for “Jesus” in the familiar religious bumper adornment is a clever take-a-second-look pun; adding the tag-line “It’s a Religious Experience” is a double-pun-dipped whammy.


For Paul Rand, visual puns were the keys to some of his most successful designs, since “they amuse as they inform” (A Designer’s Art, Yale University Press, 1985). What is the Westinghouse logo if not a double entendre—at once the iconic W that can be interpreted as a happy face? The elevation of the pun to primary graphic communications tool must also be credited to one of Rand’s former Yale University students, Eli Kince, whose Visual Puns in Design (Watson-Guptill, 1982) argues that a pun is the conveyor of credible visual messages. If the pun is the lowest form of verbal humor, Kince reasons, this may beg the question “Is graphic humor at the low end of the evolutionary scale?” To the contrary, humorist Charles Lamb, an unapologetic punster, wrote that puns are “a pistol let off at the ear, not a feather to tickle the intellect.” That would make the visual pun a visual gun .(And how fitting is Christoph Niemann’s pun on gun control, “Pistol,” below?) Or as Marshall McLuhan once suggested, “the pun is smarter, more devious, than it looks.”


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#DailyHeller #StevenHeller #verbalpuns #visualpuns

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