AMBIGUITY & PUNS
see also “Jokes” and “Language Play”
by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
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A NO. 1

Two graduates of Iona College in New Rochelle, New
York, started a pizza shop that they named A No. 1.
This was “Iona” spelled packwards.

The college sued on the grounds of “a misuse of the
Iona identity.”

The judge sided with the graduates, saying, “At best,
the similarities that do exist can be interpreted as a
satirical play on familiar symbolism.”
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 190)
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THE AMBIGUITY PARADOX

“Everything is ambiguous, as long as
it is taken by itself, while nothing is
strictly ambiguous if we look at it topdown, placing it in its proper,
cognitive environment.” (Mey 86,
Sperber and Wilson 205)
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AMBIGUITY

Flying planes can be dangerous.

The missionaries are ready to eat.

Jacob Mey says, “In real life, there is no
such thing as ambiguity—excepting
certain, rather special occasions, on which
one tries to deceive one’s partner, or `keep
the door open.’”
(Mey 12)
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DEFINITION OF “PUN”

The English meaning of pun, which
comes from the Italian word puntiglio
meaning “fine point,” is the
humorous use of a word in such a
way as to suggest two or more of its
meanings or the meaning of another
word similar in sound.
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 238)
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WHAT SAMUEL JOHNSON SAID ABOUT PUNS

“People that make puns are like wanton
boys that put coppers on the railroad
tracks….

They amuse themselves and the other
children, but their little trick may upset a
freight train of conversation for the sake of
a battered witticism.”
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 238)
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
In spite of this criticism, Johnson’s poetry contains many
puns, just as Shakespeare’s does.

The best puns are those that fit so well into a conversation
that they increase the level of understanding for those
who catch on without interrupting the conversation’s flow
for those who miss the point.

For example in Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio is
bleeding to death he says, “Ask for me tomorrow and you
shall find me a grave man.”

It was at this “point” that Romeo and Juliet changed from
a comedy into a tragedy, because now the mercurial and
comic Mercutio was dead.
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MARKETING TIME MAGAZINE










Time flies (1924)
Time marches on! (1932)
Time to get the facts (1932)
Time it’s brief (1938)
It’s Time (1944)
Time---to get it straight (1951)
A man hardly ever has Time all for himself (1954)
This is the time to start reading Time (1960)
Make time for Time (1989)
Understanding comes with Time (1994)
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 238)
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JOHNNY CARSON AS
KARNAK THE MAGNIFICENT

On his Tonight Show routine as Karnak the
Magnificent, Johnny Carson was given the answers
to which he would provide the questions, which often
relied on puns.

The answer is Catch-22

The question is, “What would the Los Angeles
Dodgers do if they were hit 100 pop flies?”
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 238)
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BOAT NAMES
 Nauti
By Nature
 Ahoy-Vey
 Pier Pressure
 Berth Control
 Harvey Wharfbanger
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 238)
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PUBLIC CUTESPEAK






Mustard’s Last Stand (a hot dog restaurant)
The Wizard of Ooze (a septic tank cleaner)
Currier and Chives (a catering service)
Wreck-Amended (an auto body shop)
Curl Up and Dye (a beauty shop)
Author Dennis Baron likens such names as these to
“overripe camembert.” He calls them “public
cutespeak” and conjectures that enjoying these
names has to be “an acquired taste.”
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 238)
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PUNS THAT WORK

The Ford V-8 was a car with a Vshaped block and 8 cylinders. V8
Vegitable juice reappropriated the
term.

Arby’s (from “R.B.” the initials of
Roast Beef)
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CULTURAL AMBIGUITY



In 1960, when Jack Paar told a mildly risque
story about a WC, the network censored
him, causing him to walk off his show for a
week.
The story was about a Swiss schoolmaster
who misunderstood a British woman’s
request for information about the “W.C.”
The school master thought the woman was
asking about the “Wayside Chapel,” but
was instead asking about the “Water
Closet” (British for toilet).
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
The schoolmaster wrote, “The W.C. is situated
nine miles from the house. It is capable of
holding 229 people and is open on Sunday and
Thursday only. I would suggest that you come
early, although there is plenty of standing
room as a rule. A good number of people
bring their lunch and make a day of it. It may
interest you to know that my daughter was
married in the W.C., and it was there that she
met her husband. I can remember the rush
there was for seats. There were 10 people to a
seat usually occupied by one.”
(Nilsen &
Nilsen 25)
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LEXICAL AMBIGUITY





On a Garbage Truck: “Our business is
picking up.”
Ad for Cheese: “Cheese can make you a
hero this weekend.”
On a Drapery Shop: “After 35 years, we’ve
finally got the hang of it.”
Optometrist’s Sign: “There’s more to a
vision examination than meets the eye.”
Ad for Asperin: “We go to a lot of pains.”
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 25)
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SYNTACTIC AMBIGUITY

A man goes into a restaurant draggng
a 10-foot alligator. He manages to get
the alligator stuffed under a table.
When the waitress approaches, he
asks her if they serve senior citizens
here. “Of course,” she says. “Good,”
he answers. “Give my alligator a
senior citizen, and I’ll have a
cheeseburger.”
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MORE SYNTACTIC AMBIGUITY



Stan Kenton wrote a song entitled, “Celery
Stalks at midnight.”
Charles Ulrich wrote a riddle: “Q: Do you
know what good clean fun is? A: No. What
good is it?”
In the Frank and Ernest comic strip, Frank
says to a real estate agent, “Sure, we’d like
to see a model home. What time does she
get off work?”
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 26)
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 In
Bud Blake’s Tiger
comic strip, a little boy
reports, “I’m gonna be in
the school play.” When
his mother asks, “What
part?” he responds, “All
of me.”
 (Nilsen & Nilsen 26)
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FROM LINGUISTICS TEXTBOOKS







The governor is a dirty street fighter.
Did you ever see a horse fly?
I cannot recommend him too highly.
Could this be the invisible man’s hair tonic?
He gave her dog biscuits.
It’s the world’s largest war surplus store.
Cynthia left directions for her Dad to follow.
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NORMAN STAGEBERG’S EXAMPLES




Dance Hall Sign: “Clean and decent
dancing every night except Monday.”
Law School Questionnaire: “How many
faculty members do you have, broken down
by sex?”
Conference Speech: “I have discussed the
high cost of living with several women.
Diner Sign: “Wanted: Man to scrub floor
and two waitresses.”
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JOHN CROSBIE: THE PUNDIT

In 1979, John Crosbie, a Canadian writer and publisher, founded
the International Save the Pun Foundation, which publishes a
monthly newsletter, The Pundit, and produces a list of the “Ten
Best Stressed Puns of the Year.”

After Crosbie’s death in 1994, Norman Gilbert, a financial planner
in Toronto became “Chairman of the Bored.”

More than 1,500 members from around the world belong to the
organization, which also gives a POTY award to the Punster of
the Year.

The year that author and collector Richard Lederer won, he said
as part of his acceptance speech at the annual April First dinner
in Chicago, “A good pun is like a good Steak---a rare medium well
done.”
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Avocado Pig
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Carrot, Grape Fruit Cauliflower
Ice Cream
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Cauliflower Olive Sheep
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Eggplant Penguins
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Green Pepper Frogs
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Kale Fish
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Lettuce Duck
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Rutabaga Mushroom Teeter Totter
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Yam Hamster
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Reference:
Encyclopedia of 20th Century
American Humor.
http://www.greenwood.com/c
atalog/OXHUMOR.aspx
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References # 1:
Baron, Dennis. Declining Grammar and Other Essays on the
English Vocabulary Urbana, IL: National Council of
Teachers of English, 1989.
Chiaro, Delia. The Language of Jokes: Analyzing Verbal Play.
New York, NY: Routledge, 1992.
Culler, Jonathan, ed. On Puns: The Foundation of Letters
New York, NY: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
Hauptman, Don. Cruel and Unusual Puns. New York, NY:
Dell/Laurel, 1991.
Lederer, Richard. Anguished English. Charlston, SC: Wyrick
and Co., 1987.
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References # 2:
Lederer, Richard. The Bride of Anguished English. New York,
NY: St Martin's Press, 2000.
Lederer, Richard. Crazy English. New York, NY: Pocket
Books, 1990.
Lederer, Richard. The Cunning Linguist. New York, NY: St.
Martin's/Griffin, 2003.
Lederer, Richard. Fractured English. New York, NY: Pocket
Books, 1997.
Lederer, Richard. Get Thee to a Punnery. New York, NY:
Laurel, 1988.
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References # 3:
Lederer, Richard. More Anguished English. New York,
NY: Delacorte, 1993.
Lederer, Richard. Nothing Risque, Nothing Gained.
Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 1996.
Lederer, Richard. Pun and Games. Chicago, IL: Chicago
Review Press, 1996.
Lodge, David. Paradise News. Harmondsworth, England:
Penguin, 1992.
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References # 4:
Mey, Jacob L. Pragmatics: An Introduction, 2nd Edition.
Oxford, England, 201.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th
Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.
Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. “Tendentious Puns:
Names with a Purpose.” Et Cetera 48.2 (1991): 146-152.
Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance: Communication
and Cognition, 2nd Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1995.
Stageberg, Norman C. "Structural Ambiguity: Some Sources."
English Journal 55 (1966): 558-563.
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