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No. 1850:
The Highest Form of Humor

Today, our guest, the Rev. John Price, meditates upon the highest form of humor. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

When John Lienhard and I are together, we often swap our latest puns, and after one of these sessions, he invited me to be a guest lecturer on his "ingenious" program to talk about puns. Paranomasia is the dictionary's term for a pun: from the Greek via Latin, paronomazein, to call by a slight name-change.

Puns alternately dazzle, puzzle, and even anger some people. Puns enliven conversation, and wake people up from otherwise dull sermons, particularly when unintended. So, why do the big franchise hamburger joints not serve escargot? Well, you see, it's part of their marketing plan, to serve only fast food.

Puns turn a phrase and make it startle our expectations and amuse us with the incongruity of the word.

Garrison Keillor certainly has that fine-tuned ability to turn those double meanings. He points out that chicken coops only have two doors because if they'd had four, they'd be called chicken sedans. That pun will, like so many others, eventually fade as calling two-door cars "coupes" gets left behind in the dust.

That antiquing process happened to many of the truly great puns penned by William Shakespeare. I took a course on Shakespeare in which the professor went to great lengths to explain why certain lines contained terrific puns that made great sense back in Tudor England, when the key words had different meanings than today. In that class, we could barely smile at the ancient puns, because explaining one is like analyzing the biochemical contents of a delicious entré. I'd rather go on to the next course.

A certain automobile company makes a sleek sportscar referred to as the Z-car. So this snail orders one and requests S's be applied to it instead, explaining when he drives by, he wants people to turn their heads, watching that S-car go.


A great festival of puns is hurled early in May every year in Austin at the O. Henry Museum. It's the house where William Sydney Porter lived when he wrote as O. Henry in the late 1890's.

When you sign on as a contestant, you're given a category and you must pop off a pun on the subject within five seconds. The person standing with you then has five seconds to respond with one on the same subject, and so on. It's great fun. Check for their websites on it, with archives of old material. Look for pun-off. Why should you eat at a big franchise hamburger joint on Ash Wednesday, Yom Kippur, or Ramadan? Well, it is fast food.

Sometimes puns come along in the most unexpected ways. When I saved this piece to my hard drive, Microsoft Word completed its filename as "punsforLienhard-dot-doc."

Listen carefully to this program and you'll hear dat Doc Lienhard slip in a pun from time to time, all the funnier because we expect an engineering professor to be so serious about a dry sub-ject. And that's part of the unexpected spice that we all need daily.

I'm the Reverend John Price, and I'm interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For a good time, go to:

For a most thorough explanation of "pun":

The Rev. John W. Price, was an Episcopal priest and Chaplain at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital. He was also Assisting priest at Palmer Memorial Church, Houston, Texas. 



Upon hearing a pun ...