Yesterday’s meeting with the intern on the Traugott-Zwicky linguistics in the comics project was about puns in the comics, focusing on Bizarro and Rhymes With Orange (two strips that regularly offer puns): phonetic similarity, the One Form, One Meaning principle (vs. the prevalence of ambiguity in language), portmanteaus and compounds, the importance of context and background knowledge, and much more. Since we’re looking at cartoons and comic strips, the marriage of visual and verbal content was a recurrent theme. There are puns that absolutely require visual presentation, like this one (which I posted about here):
The verbal content — snake eyes for a particular roll of the dice — is equally important, though it’s only implicit in the cartoon.
Then there are puns that work just fine without graphics.
Take this joke, which Danelle Morton passed on from John Michael Talbot on Facebook:
Lost on a rainy Friday night, a priest stumbles into a monastery and requests shelter there. Fortunately, he’s just in time for dinner and was treated to the best fish and chips he’s ever had.
After dinner, he goes into the kitchen to thank the chefs. He is met by two brothers, “Hello, I’m Brother Michael, and this is Brother Francis.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you. I just wanted to thank you for a wonderful dinner. The fish and chips were the best I’ve ever tasted. Out of curiosity, who cooked what?”
Brother Michael replied, “Well, I’m the fish friar.”
Father turns to the other brother and says, “Then you must be….”
“Yes, I’m afraid I’m the chip monk…”
This stands on its own, without any pictures. And it has perfect puns: fish friar and fish frier are homophones, as are chip monk and chipmunk. The joke is clearer in print (because of the orthographic differences between the homophones), but it would still work in speech; it would just require a bit more interpretive work. Fish friar would probably be understood as fish frier at first, and if the story weren’t framed as a joke, a hearer would probably not even see the friar interpretation. But then we get to chip monk, in a context where chipmunk is simply absurd, and any previous frier understanding would have to be re-evaluated.
You could argue that the spoken telling is more effective, because of its greater potential for surprise. But the written telling still has surprise value: when you read fish friar, with its clear double meaning in the context, you can’t tell where the joke is going to go, beyond the expectation that it will have something to do with chips, as in fish and chips. So chip monk is a satisfying surprise.
All in all, a fine pun joke.
(Some general comments on puns here.)