A great pun is its own re­word in quip-fire bat­tles

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY AL­LAN FALLOW book­world@wash­post.com Al­lan Fallow is a free­lance writer and book ed­i­tor in Alexan­dria, Va.

If Rasta­far­i­ans avoid the Panama Canal, is it be­cause they dread locks? That groaner ap­pears nowhere in “Away with Words,” Joe Berkowitz’s tour of Amer­ica’s pun com­pe­ti­tions. But “dread locks” might be ir­re­sistibly bad enough to ad­vance me to the sec­ond round, for the bar is low: Berkowitz, a re­porter at Fast Com­pany magazine, got laughs from a Texas crowd for recit­ing a string of food puns that cul­mi­nated in “Stop gherkin us around — this is your fen­nel warn­ing!”

The au­thor rounds out his ir­rev­er­ent sur­vey of “spo­ken-word fight clubs” by vis­it­ing the set of “@Mid­night,” where comics gather “for guilt-free pun­ning,” and “Bob’s Burg­ers,” the “pun­ni­est show on TV.” He also in­ter­views headline writ­ers at the New York Post, one of whom sug­gested that a story about the heroin-us­ing chef at a French bistro be ti­tled “SMACK MY BISQUE UP.” (That was deemed too cruel to run, even for the Post.)

So what type of peo­ple love puns enough to de­claim them un­der the hot lights of Brook­lyn’s Pun­der­dome or the blaz­ing sun of Austin’s O. Henry Pun-Off? Berkowitz dis­cov­ers that they are co­me­di­ans and coders, ac­tors and slam po­ets, math­e­ma­ti­cians and “un­at­tached English ma­jors” for whom a bad pun “isn’t the party foul it might be else­where.” Un­der stage names such as Groan Up, Black Pun­ther and Quip Me, Baby, Bon Mot Time, these “clos­eted pun­sters” view the wit wars as “a safe haven for that per­son in ev­ery of­fice and class­room turn­ing blue in the face from sup­press­ing word­play all day.”

Thank­fully, “Away With Words” is more than just wall-towall one-lin­ers such as “Ele­phants are good at multi-tusk­ing.” A visit to the Hu­mor Re­search Con­fer­ence in Texas in­tro­duces Berkowitz to “witzel­sucht,” the Ger­man word for a pun­ning dis­ease that can be a symp­tom of stroke or other brain dam­age. (De­spite the su­pe­rior length of its nouns, Ger­man has only half the vol­ume of English, whose mil­lion­word larder makes it “un­con­testably the best lan­guage to pun in.”)

Grate­ful as I am to Berkowitz for de­tail­ing the sur­vival of the glibbest, I feel wounded that he brands my fa­vorite quip in the book as an overly ef­fort­ful “look, Ma, no hands” pun. Yes, it was writ­ten in a bid to make Mitt Rom­ney sound folksy, but how of­ten do you get to wit­ness a triple word­play? “The cook should serve eggs Bene­dict on hub­caps,” Rom­ney said dur­ing a 2011 cam­paign stop at a diner, “be­cause there’s no plates like chrome for the hol­landaise.”


Joe Berkowitz fills “Away with Words” with more than just one-lin­ers. His ex­plo­ration of pun com­pe­ti­tions shows that any­one can be a word­play lover.

By Joe Berkowitz Harper Peren­nial. 288 pp. Paper­back, $15.99

AWAY WITH WORDS An Ir­rev­er­ent Tour Through the World of Pun Com­pe­ti­tions

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