Playing at Puns with Jane Austen

Playing at Puns with Jane Austen

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?


23 Responses to Playing at Puns with Jane Austen

    • Now that you’re on the lookout, I imagine you’ll spot even more. (I left several other’s I’ve noted unmentioned – there are certainly more to be found!”

  1. Very interesting post, Diana. I would agree that Jane Austen did deliberately use those names. So, I’m thinking that the next book I do, I will endeavor the same. Thank you very much for this informative post. 🙂

    • I love it when authors weave such things into what they write. I try to do it myself, but Austen’s ability to weave such things in unobtrusively never cease to amaze me. I think readers catch these things on a subliminal level even when they don’t notice them consciously, and it adds to the richness of the work. Thanks for commenting, Gianna!

  2. Diana/thank you fur such an interesting post!! Good for thought!!!

    Anji-very clver of you to remember s d mention the de Burgh cat!!! Bet you around to a penny that Jane was aware of this symbol on the crest!!!

    • Thank you Mary – I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I too was impressed with Anji’s knowledge and making the association to the family crest in her comment. My favorite posts happen when the comments add to the post and it turns into a conversation.

  3. This post was really fun to read and your explanation of Darcy’s name was really interesting. I had not given any real thought about the use of puns in Austen’s books but I will try to notice them more in the future now.

  4. Diana, I suffer from chronic punsterism,for which there is no cure. I love your post! You pulled some wonderful sleepers from JA’s writings. Thank you!

  5. These are both an extreme stretch, but I will throw them out anyway:
    Wickham sounds sort of like wicked. I don’t know if “ham” referred to actors in Jane Austen’s time, but he also was an actor.

    Willoughby relates to willow, a tree that bends.

    Thank you for making me think about these, even if I am wrong.

    • I like the way you think. I have also thought of the “wicked” comparison with Wickham. The etymological root of both words, “wick” means “bad, wicked, false.” I wouldn’t put it past Jane to plant such a huge clue as to his character right under our noses! And I’m with you on Willoughby too.

    • Isn’t it wonderful that we can read Austen’s work and get enjoyment without analyzing everything? I think our brains catch some of these things at a subconscious level and influence our interpretation even if we don’t process them as such. Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment.

  6. Some time ago, I was looking up surnames from P&P, following a post on a blog (I think it was here, but can’t remember by whom or what it was about) and as I’ve come across people with the surname D’Arcy but never Darcy and also Bennett but never Bennet during the course of my work. I went through all of the surnames in the book. The one that sticks in my mind the most is to do with Lady Catherine. I’ve looked it up again this monring and this is the quote from Wikipedia:

    “The de Burgh coat of arms is blazoned as: Or, a cross gules (a red cross on a gold shield), above which is a seated and chained ‘mountain cat'”.

    I appreciate the spelling isn’t quite the same, but as soon as I saw the word “cat”, I had to smile. I wonder if Jane Austen knew about it. Is it possible she had access to a book about heraldry in her father’s library? He did take in boys as pupils after all. Who knows what sort and variety of books he had acquired.

    • Oh wow! This one is new to me. Catherine is often shortened to “cat” as well, so it’s like a double feline reference. And a mountain cat would be wild and prone to bite and scratch. Awesome!

      • It’s just so appropriate isn’t it? I’d love to know if our beloved Jane knew about it too. I have the kind of brain that delights in remembering all sorts of trivia and this is one such piece. I can’t remember anything about the other surnames from when I was looking them up but this one just stuck!

  7. Longbourne – a pun in many ways… Mr Bennet has “long-born” the silliest girls in England and his wife. Mrs Bennet has “long-borne” her husband going to his study… and she has long-born the need to marry off her girls… etc.

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