A wonton abuse of power

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WASHINGTON, DC: Q:How are the mirthless leaders of China’s repressive, totalitarian communist regime exactly like readers of American newspapers?

A: Both have an unhinged hatred of puns.

You’ve probably seen the recent stories about how the Chinese government is banning wordplay in headlines. American newspapers duly reported this, often making fun of these humorless despots, without mentioning an awkward truth: We’ve been hearing the identical rant from our own readers since essentially forever.

I spent most of my career as an editor, meaning I got to read incoming letters to the editor, meaning I know just how large a percentage of them are imploring us to stop with the puns already. Because my editing years were back when we were still allowed to be arrogant—this was before we became so desperate for home-delivery customers that our distributors will now mow your lawns if you ask—we’d gleefully run those indignant, imploring anti-pun letters under groaner headlines like “Shun Puns? No, Hon. More Pun-Ishment Coming!”


The harrumphing Chinese leaders contend that puns confuse and distort the truth, which is a strange worry for a country that operates (pun alert) the Great Firewall of China, which routinely prohibits Internet searches for terms like “persecution” or phrases like “Tibetan independence.” But our newspaper readers don’t seem to have that problem: They just say that puns are lame.

I find that argument . . . limp. I believe that people who dislike puns are people who approach language timidly, not as a potentially exciting exercise in mental gymnastics but as an enigma to be painfully deciphered, or worse, an enemy who is trying to fool us.

Are you one of those meek, language-challenged soreheads? Here’s a test:

Woman goes into a bar, says to the bartender: “I’ll have an entendre. Make it a double.” So he gives it to her.

If you get it and like it, you’ll enjoy what comes next. If not, be forewarned: It will annoy you.

I am a joyful practitioner of the headline pun, though I bow to the folks at the New York tabloids, who are masters of the art, such as the editors at the New York Post who labeled Lance Armstrong a “Drug Pedaler” and who once headlined a front-page story about a past drunk-driving arrest of George W. Bush, “D-Dubya-I.”

Still, I do have a pun-intensive oeuvre of which I am proud. Behold:

For a story on action-movie special-effects detonation experts: “Business is Booming!”

For an irreverent story on the funeral industry: “Is Death a Laughing Matter? Of Corpse Not!”

For a column on how journalists actually want to be forced to testify against sources so they can decline and be heroes: “Subpoenas Envy.”

About a plumber who used only a plunger and his own massive strength to relieve a toilet clog after an industrial-strength machine snake had failed: “A modern-day John Henry, a stool-drivin’ man.”

Sometimes, I seek expert help. I once edited a package of stories (themed for Labor Day) about people who had the worst jobs in the world. Copy editor Pat Myers wrote the headlines. For the story about the guy whose job was to empty porta-potties, she wrote: “Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind.” For the story about the guy whose job it was to watch parolees pee into cups during drug tests, it was: “Looking Out for Number One.”

Now, was that so bad? Yes? Well, by all means join the dour, harrumphing, unpunny, pun-phobic Chinese scaredy-cat leaders. Or, as my friend Emily Shroder suggested, take your place among all those Chairmen Meows.

—© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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