Whatever your tolerance for silly one-liners, puns are really groan on us. You could say we are in the grip of a global pun-demic. Indeed, if the pun is to wordplay, as William Safire, the late New York Times writer said, "what dominatrix sex is to foreplay – a stinging whip that elicits groans of guilty pleasure" then we have rarely been keener gluttons for pun-ishment.
Enough? Too bad – this is a story about puns and how such "debased witticisms… banished out of the learned world" (as the 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison perhaps optimistically hoped) are enjoying a resurgence. Tonight, in recognition of their proliferation in tweets, shop signs, in stand-up routines and newspaper headlines, eight pun-slingers will do battle at the first UK Pun Championships.
Glenn Moore is among those comedians who will take to a stage at Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival, in a pun-off hosted by Simon Brodkin (in character as Lee Nelson). Competitors in pairs will fire jokes at each other based on topics drawn at random, in three-minute rounds of pun tennis. Judges and the audience will decide who advances to the next round.
The comedians have seen a long-list of topics. They range from the broad (e.g. music) to the specific, such as Richard III. "So I spent this morning coming up with Richard III jokes," Moore tells me. Go on then, give me one. "OK, I'm not proud of any of these. So, he was offered a place at Cambridge University to start that year, but Richard deferred. That's pathetic!"
Tim Vine is not involved in tonight's battle, which is perhaps fortunate for those who are; he is the punster's punster, who once broke the Guinness World Record for the most jokes told in an hour (499). He says attitudes towards puns are changing. "When I started stand-up in the early 1980s, puns were deeply uncool. John Cleese said the three rules of comedy were, no puns, no puns, no puns, but mine were, puns puns puns. They're still uncool in many quarters, but now it feels as though there's room for more of everything in comedy. And people like wordplay because anyone can have a go. There's a mass appeal."
Vine points out that the "top 10 best jokes" at the Edinburgh Festival are always pun-heavy. He came fourth last year with: "My friend told me he was going to a fancy dress party as an Italian island. I said to him 'Don't be Sicily'." (Rob Auton won with: "I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.")
Vine says the brevity of Twitter has fuelled our fondness for wordplay. In January, a complaint about a fish packet with "no bar cod" triggered an unlikely pun-off with Sainsbury's. "I tried dropping you a line but this whole situation is giving me a haddock," the customer said in one of dozens of tweets. "What are you going to do about it? Let minnow". The official response: "If I'm herring you right, you're looking to eel our relationship. I'll tell the store to find the shelf & fillet."
The World Championship Pun-Off, held in Austin, Texas, has named a punster of the year since 1988, but puns are as old as language itself. The Romans believed good "paronomasia", the Greek word for punning, revealed intellectual and rhetorical skill. Ancient Egyptians created puns with hieroglyphs, and Shakespeare adored puns, often deploying them with subversive intent. In his book, The Pun Also Rises, John Pollack, a former US punning champion and presidential speechwriter, says puns "reflect something fundamental, enduring and perhaps even universal about human expression".
Away from comedy or social media, there is one place where puns have always flourished. In newsrooms, the punniest headlines can promote stories way beyond their value (and bring satisfaction to harried sub-editors). The greatest, perhaps: "Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious," a football headline wrongly credited to The Scottish Sun that first appeared in the Liverpool Echo in the 1970s above a story about the footballer Ian Callaghan and Queens Park Rangers. It was even better: "Super Cally Goes Ballistic, QPR Atrocious."