Since ancient Greece, smart people have been annoyed by puns

When I pun at work.
When I pun at work.
Image: Reuters/Ina Fassbender
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It seems there’s nothing new under the pun. Since the height of classical Greek philosophy, writers and poets have been wary of such wordplay.

In a new edition of The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms, to be published at the end of August, authors lay out a brief history of “paronomasia,” or puns.

The authors write:

Rhetoricians from Aristotle onward are mostly cautious about paronomasia, chiefly about its overuse, while noting its effectiveness when used appropriately. Some stress its low status. Overuse is a question of competence, but status is simply a question of taste and fashion, which may vary from one era to another.

They trace the reputation of “wordplay based on like-sounding words,” noting that for 19th-century writers like Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, the pun was chiefly comic, while 18th-century writers were not impressed by all the pun and games.

Some modern poets, like TS Eliot and Wallace Stevens, used puns for serious purposes, “but it is still a question whether paronomasia has regained its earlier status as a figure, lost when 18th-century rhetoricians downgraded the pun,” they write.

The third edition of the handbook is edited by Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman, and published by Princeton University Press.