Just as some children sing or create art at a young age, I cannot remember a time when I did not love words. This grew naturally into a love of reading, which, led me to discover the delights of a good pun. I was around the age of seven, I believe, when my oldest brother–who was in that preadolescent stage of all-knowingness–on the occasion of hearing me chuckling over a pun, mocked me with these words: “Don’t you know that a pun is the lowest form of humor?” I, young and naive, took this warning seriously and so suppressed my natural inclination toward punny wordplay beginning on that day. I wish now that I had been irrepressible and defiant, for it took me years to throw off his declaration and relish a good pun.
Fast forward many years to the age of Internet searches. Many times I had wondered about that phrase which had smothered a childhood pleasure. With the power of the world wide web at my fingertips, I tracked down the source of this sentiment–a similar three-hundred-year-old statement. English dramatist John Dennis famously said, “The pun is the lowest form of wit.” Fortunately for us all, his attitude was turned on its head by the 20th-century comedian Oscar Levant. “A pun is the lowest form of humor–if you don’t think of it first.” My eyes were opened, and I’ve never looked back. I wish I hadn’t wasted all those years on pun avoidance, but all I can do at this point is make up for lost time.
Thank goodness our dear Jane enjoyed wordplay all her life. Her works are full of the evidence, some nuanced, some blatant. When I first decided to write on this topic, the first one that popped into my head was this one from Mansfield Park, where Mary Crawford turns a question posed to her about her acquaintances in the Navy into a naughty pun which she immediately denies is a pun at all, which invites anyone who may have missed it to “get” it.
“…Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”
The next one to pop into my head was Mr. Elton’s “Courtship Charade.” Harriet Smith, under Emma’s tutelage, was collecting riddles and cyphers. Emma attempted to engage Mr. Elton in the pursuit, inviting him to make up a fresh one. After claiming that neither Emma or Miss Smith could inspire him, he nevertheless delivered one the next day. He denied having written it himself, attributing it to an unnamed friend. He wasn’t able to look Harriet in the eye, only Emma, and she interpreted his awkwardness to mean that the paper was meant for Harriet, and they sat down to sort out the meaning of his poetic charade.
My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!
But, ah! united, what reverse we have!
Man’s boasted power and freedom, all are flown;
Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.
Thy ready wit the word will soon supply,
May its approval beam in that soft eye!
Now, this is where Austen’s genius comes through. The word “Charade” also means “an empty or deceptive act or pretense.” So Mr. Elton, in claiming that he wasn’t the author of the written charade was perpetrating a charade himself – one that would create a great misunderstanding.
Some of Austen’s best puns are found in the dual meanings of the names she gave her characters. One that I have pondered on is the surname of Darcy. There are a few options for where she got the name. I prefer to think it was from the Irish Darcys, whose Gaelic name literally means “dark.” Since we know he is both tall and handsome, and by naming him Darcy, she has added the final qualifier to what is perceived as the perfect male romantic partner. His brooding demeanor perfectly compliments the name as well, and so I consider the name Darcy to have the requisite dual meaning to qualify as a pun.
Catherine Moreland, on the other hand, is a much more obvious one. More land is what her father needs to support his large family. More land would have provided him with the means to bestow a decent dowry to his daughter. More land reinforces the poverty of the heroine’s family in a striking way.
My favorite of all of Austen’s names is that of Frank Churchill. What a wholesome sounding name it is! What irony then that one who is “Frank” never is. That he doesn’t stand on high ground, that his motives are worldly and never spiritual. Frank Churchill, one of her most disingenuous characters, is the antithesis of his name.
Last, we’ll consider the name Lucy Steele, which is a quadruple pun. In addition to the surname, there is the reference to steel, a cold, hard metal. We also have to steal, the taking of something you don’t own and fourth is another meaning of steal, which is to sneak. All this adds up to a cold, calculating, dishonest person. (Can you tell I don’t much like her?)
What are your favorite Austen puns and plays on words?