PEN International Talk – 9

  1. Humorists have fun with language

Whether naming characters or naming their works, humorists delight in playing with words. From P. G. Wodehouse:

As for Gussie Fink-Nottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight.

Charles Dickens was a master at naming characters: Anne Chickenstalker, Luke Honeythunder, Charity Pecksniff, Wackford Squeers, and Prince Turveydrop, to cite a small sample.

Humor writers often pick funny titles for their works, to set the proper tone. Three examples: If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?!; My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew; No Sex Please, We’re British.

David Ives created his own language in his whimsical play “The Universal Language,” in which a student shows up at the School of Unamunda to learn the next universal language, which, of course is named Unamunda (e.g., in the made-up language of Unamunda, “Velcro” means “Welcome”; “Harvardyu” means “How are you?”; the word for “English” is “Johncleese”; “How do you say” becomes “Howardjohnson” and so on).

I had fun with my chapter titles in Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak, including titles such as “How are Things in Doctor Mora?” and “Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas.” I named a chapter about the art scene in San Miguel, ahem, “Frida’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Paint.” So far my favorite chapter title in the sequel is a chapter about the dogs of San Miguel. I titled it “A Dingo Ate My Baby Ruth.”

I recall a magazine cartoon from many years ago. A standing hot dog with arms, legs, and a face is stranded on a patch of dirt with one coconut tree in the middle of an ocean. A bottle has just washed ashore with a message inside. In the caption, the hot dog reads the message, which says “Congratulations. You may already be a weiner.”

It is estimated that Shakespeare used over 3,000 puns in his plays.


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