Friday, November 7, 2008

Punnily We Pun Along

I sometimes contemplate the possibility of a world without puns. Such a world would, in many ways, be much poorer. Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare would both have found their humour sadly constrained by the lack of a punning option; it is possible they would even have given up in despair and taken to writing depressing plays about two characters waiting at a crossroads for a man who never came.* Without puns, our innuendos would be less spicy. Without puns, we would have a lesser understanding of the power of word-play. Without puns, there would be no Family Circus.

That last point is the one that really does sometimes have me longing for a punless universe.

Today's Adventures of Idiotic Melonheads has Dolly making an atrocious pun about Moses' tablets. There are many places Dolly can take this pun and stuff it; it makes my brain cringe. However, while still trying to control both the dry heaves and the rage, I started wondering whether this comic were really a candidate for medievalisation. Surely "tablet" wasn't a pun in the fourteenth century. Surely today's melonheaded chuckle couldn't be that old.

Surely it can. "Tablet," according to a certain eminently useful online Middle English dictionary, is from the Old French and can mean both "one of the tablets of stone upon which God wrote the Ten Commandments" and "a small, flattish or compressed cake of a medical substance, a troche, lozenge." The Family Circus is drawing on a pun that has been possible since 1394.

The Keanes are thus missing something from their comic. If they want the true medieval feel, they're going to have to cite an authority in order to prove their pun's antiquity; if they can't find an authority, they need to make one up. I have thoughtfully glossed their comment with the immortal words of Isidore of Seville. I'm sure the Keanes would have done so themselves if they hadn't been running entirely on autopilot since the end of the Vietnam War.

*Metaphorically, of course, this more or less describes the plot of Hamlet.


Anonymous said...

I guffawed! That is definitely my new favorite Isidore quote.

Michael said...

Not that I doubt the word of an eminent medievalist such as yourself, but are you sure that you've quoted Isidore correctly. Possibly he wrote ba-da bing!

Just sayin'.

Angry Kem said...

Michael: I think you must be using a different translation than I am. There are sixteen extant manuscripts of the English version of the Isidorian work known in Middle English as Japes Ich Ne Colde Nat Werken Ynto the Etymologiae, Damn Hit. That particular sentence has been translated, variously, as "Ba-dom chyng" (four manuscripts), "Ba-da bing" (three manuscripts), "Ca-chyng smashe," (three manuscripts), "Fa-shyng bange," (three manuscripts), "Ba-dom powe," (two manuscripts), and "Drommerolle!" (one manuscript). "Ba-da bing" is actually considered erroneous by many scholars, as it appears to be a mistranslation of the sound-effect in question; its presence has been attributed to the fact that the scribe responsible for the three manuscripts in question tended to be distracted at various points by the presence of young women. Scholars have put together this theory from some of his other mistranslations, which include, "O la la," "Hotte mama," "Ich wante to bee yowre loue toye," and "Brestes!"

Michael said...

Thank you, angry kem. I sit corrected.

As amends, here's a piece of historical trivia. William Bligh was involved in not one but three mutinies.

His first, the most famous, was the 1789 Bounty Mutiny.

The second was the 1797 Nore Mutiny, where Bligh was sent off his ship (HMS Director of 64 guns) by the mutinying crew. It should be noted that this mutiny event was not triggered by any specific actions by Bligh but were widespread and involved a fair number of ships.

The last mutiny was the only coup d'├ętat in Australian history. In 1807 Bligh was made Governor of New South Wales. The next year he was deposed in the Rum Rebellion.

None of these mutinies had any negative effect on Bligh's career. He eventually rose to the rank of Vice Admiral in the Royal Navy.

Michael said...


I've just read my previous post. The last sentence of the fourth paragraph should read: It should be noted that this mutiny was not triggered by any specific actions by Bligh but was widespread and involved a fair number of ships.

That's what I get for not previewing my post.

dmontag said...

Not to pick nits (I always do anyway), but what is Dolly doing halfway into a Bible reading about Moses and his tablets? This happens in Exodus, the 2nd book of the Bible, but she's got her Bible open to about the New Testament.


Angry Kem said...

Dmontag: Good point. Perhaps this is the little-known Billingsley Bible, which contains ten books that precede Genesis. They mostly involve aliens, plus quite a lot of time travel. Oddly enough, this particular Bible has been declared heretical by most branches of the Church.

The Prettiest said...

It seems doubtful to me that any of the Keane kids (or potentially even their parents) can read*, so it probably doesn't matter where she is in the book.

*this would fit with the Medieval setting as well