Puns: Because word humor is the best humor

Whoever said puns are the lowest form of humor did not write the Wikipedia page on puns. Word humor is the best humor and the Wikipedia authors respect that assessment.

The pun-hater was probably Samuel Johnson. He lived in the 18th century, which as I understand it predates Wikipedia by a year or two. But what did Johnson know about words? Okay, so he wrote the first English dictionary, in 1755—big deal. Writers had been punning in Sumerian cuneiform since the 31st century B.C.E. (And if you think that sounds like a long time, try calculating it in dog-years.)

It must be true, it’s right there on the well-footnoted “Pun” Wikipedia page:

“Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs were originally based on punning systems…”

And—ahem:

“Punning has been credited as the fundamental concept behind alphabets, writing, and even human civilization.”

But go ahead and side with the Johnsons of this world. You must hate civilization. And laughter. So whatever you do, do NOT read this tweet by the British humorist Moose Allain:

word humor

No, seriously. How can you not laugh at that?


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Passive verbs can do real damage — Jackson Katz

I’ve always hated passive verbs. But this week, a man I’ve never heard of named Jackson Katz gave me another reason to loathe them.

Did you notice or read about the social media hashtag #metoo this week? Apparently the campaign predates social media—activist Tarana Burke created it 10 years ago as a way of connecting with survivors of sexual abuse. But it acquired its # this week, revived by the furor around Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long abuse of his power and his penis.

Soon, it seemed like every woman with a social media account had shared her experiences of sexual harassment and/or abuse, with the easily searchable #metoo connecting them us—yes, #metoo—in a digital web.

And then something came across my Twitter feed—an excerpt from some writing by Jackson Katz.

Jackson Katz wrote this

I’ll type it out for those of you who can’t see the graphic:

“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather tahn how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.

So you can see how the use of the passive voice has a political effect. [It] shifts the focus off of men and boys onto girls and women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at that term ‘violence against women,’ nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them…Men aren’t even a part of it!”

Thank you, Jackson Katz

I’m a word person—been one for a long time. And I’m ashamed to say I never noticed this.

The language we use to describe abuse, domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment completely erases men—who are in most cases the perpetrators of the above-mentioned actions.

I’ve written before about writer Josh Bernoff’s tip for rooting out passive verbs: If you can add the phrase “by zombies” and the sentence still makes sense, you’ve got a passive verb.

Let’s put one of Dr. Katz’s examples to the test:

 We talk about how many women were raped last year [by zombies.]

Nope. Zombies aren’t raping women—for the most part that would be men. And if I remember my middle school biology correctly, it’s 100% men doing the impregnating. Why do we continue to use language that absolves them of responsibility?

I always encourage you to pay attention to passive verbs. Today I especially encourage you to pay attention to passive verbs we use when we talk about women. Shine the spotlight where it belongs—on the people creating these various “crimes against women” and perhaps we can create a more just and equitable society. One word at a time.


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Listen up, people! The case for non-gendered language

There’s a lot of divisiveness in the world these days—at least in the United States, but I fear it’s spreading. In the face of so much division, we might do well to focus on what we have in common: our humanity. We are all people.

Is that enough to make a start?

Comedian Rhea Butcher put it this way in a tweet earlier this week:

"If we called everyone 'people' instead of separating everyone by gender we'd have to admit that everyone is a person."

“If we called everyone people…we’d have to admit that everyone is a person.” This Rhea Butcher person has a point.

Butcher was responding to the NFL player who found it funny “to hear a female talk about routes,” the patterns that football players run. Of course that “female,” Jourdan Rodrigue, is a sports reporter. It’s her job to talk about “routes.” But even if she didn’t talk football for a living, women can converse intelligently about anything we care to learn. And despite what sexist quarterbacks and hotel doormen assume, women can also be sports fans.

But Butcher is making a larger point here, and it’s one I’m surprised I haven’t given much thought to before. It’s about the divisiveness of gender.

“Women do X; men do Y.” Instead, how about:

People do X and Y.

Same set of information, but it produces an even more accurate sentence. Because we don’t make choices based on our gender; we make choices based on our passions and interests. I’m a woman baseball fan, but you can find plenty of men who’ve never watched a game in their lives.

Step into a toy store and it’s not hard to figure out the intended audience for all those pink toys. The world may want us to believe that pink is for girls, but I prefer a bluish palette—and I have some male friends who rock pastel button-downs better than anyone in the world. Yes, even the pink ones.

Why aren’t we all just “people”?

I spoke about this a while back, in a recording I made for the first World Speech Day. Instead of asking, “What’ll you girls be having?” a restaurant server could just as easily ask about “you folks” or “you people.”


It’s not easy to adopt non-gendered language, at least not if you’re used to the old way of speaking. That’s why in Sweden, they begin teaching non-gendered language in preschool. But adults learn plenty of things—when we want to.

So I invite you to spend a week noticing the pronouns you use. When you’re referring to a specific person, by all means use the pronouns that person prefers. But if you don’t need to gender something or someone, then don’t.

Start with your writing—it’s easier to revise and correct. Once you’ve gotten the hang of eliminating unnecessary gender references in print, it’ll be easier to do it when you speak. Eventually—like any new skill we learn—it will just come naturally to you.

The dench Dame Judi Dench — Song for a Sunday

Listen to Judi Dench rap. (I bet you never expected to read that sentence.)

“Hey, I’m Jude-to-the-D—Pow!”

I came across a Huffpost article about Dame Judi Dench “learning to spit lyrics” with a British rapper.

While she does look fetching in the flat-brimmed DENCH cap he gives her, the talent she displays is not so much rapping as it is mimicry—and rhythm. The Dame’s got rhythm.

Have a listen to the video if you like, but the thing that made me want to bring this to your attention is this line in the accompanying article:

“In the United Kingdom, Dench’s surname is sometimes used as slang to describe something amazing.”

Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench, photo by Caroline Bonarde Ucci, CC BY 3.0

A quick check in the Urban Dictionary confirms Dench as a synonym for sick (in a good way) or nice, and offers the examples:

That was dench bruvaaaaa
look at her saaaaaaaan she is well judi dench

What an extraordinary thing to have one’s name enter the lexicon—and as high praise, no less.

Of course we all know Judi Dench as a marvelous actor. But do you know she’s also quite a, well, a dench musical theatre interpreter as well?

In a production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in London, she sang the over-sung, often cloyingly sentimental “Send in the Clowns.” Frankly, the song had always put me right to sleep. Until I saw her interpretation. It’s dench, all right. Totally dench. Enjoy.


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WTF Philadelphia?

First stop on my vacation took me to Philadelphia. I think of Philly as a sort of mini-New York. You know, a city on the East Coast. So it must share the kinds of New York City values I’m used to. But apparently…not so much. I found myself bewildered more than once, thinking WTF Philadelphia?

[Yeah, I know there’s supposed to be a comma between WTF and Philadelphia. But I don’t want to anger the SEO Gods.]

My first clue came at the ballpark. Of course I was in Philadelphia for a Mets game. Don’t you know me by now?

RIP Darren Daulton

WTF Philadelphia
Daulton’s 1991 baseball card, image c/o mysticgames.com

The Phillies had just lost one of their great players the week I visited. Darren Daulton was the catcher on their 1997 World Series-winning team, and they paid tribute to him before the game. You know: moment of silence, reverent video—at least 7 of the whole 9 yards. I’m sure they’ll get to 9 later, when they can bring in his family and the men he played with for a more extensive tribute. But he’d only just passed away; the family is probably still making funeral arrangements.

We Mets fans know what it’s like to lose a beloved player too young—”the Kid,” Gary Carter. Carter was a catcher on our 1986 World Series-winning team. And, like Daulton, he was also felled by a brain tumor. I grabbed some extra napkins at the cheesesteak stand to sop up my inevitable tears.

And I did cry at the memorial (enough with the dying, already). But I also gasped in astonishment at the film tribute. After detailing the highlights of Daulton’s playing career—the little film was packed with clips of him in action—the voiceover announcer intoned,

“To the ladies, he was a matinée idol. But he was also a man’s man.”

Now I’ll grant you, the guy was handsome. Chiseled cheekbones, strong jaw, a full head of floppy late 1980s hair. But will someone please explain to me why we needed the caveat that men also liked him—or maybe that he also liked hanging with  dudes. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what that sentence was trying to say.

One thing it did say—loud and clear to me—is that someone thinks the only reason a woman could possibly admire a player is for his good looks. But is that really the story you want to tell your female fans, Phillies management? “Don’t worry your pretty little heads about strategy and skill; just look at the hot bodies. And buy lots of pink gear with the team logo. M’kay?”

WTF Philadelphia?

Still, I did enjoy the game. For once the Mets were in fine form, combining lights-out pitching by Jacob deGrom; stellar defense in the field; and—mirabile dictu!—actual hits, including singles and doubles, so that more than once when someone came along to hit it out of the park we scored not one run but three. Add in a handful of solo shots and you arrive at the very satisfying score of 10-0.

I hopped in a cab outside the ballpark—couldn’t have been easier—and hurtled back toward my hotel. The doorman opened the taxi door for me, gave a deferential half-bow and asked, “How was your evening, sir?”

Sir?

I mean, yes, I was wearing a baseball jersey and matching cap. But I was also wearing my—well, this is a business blog so I’ll just say “curves.” The moment I stepped one daintily shod foot out of the taxi, he started falling all over himself to apologize.

I looked him in the eyes and said,

“You know, girls can be baseball fans, too.”

The minute the word tumbled out of my mouth, I wanted to stuff it back in. I haven’t been a girl in—er, probably since before that doorman’s birth. But I was a little bit rattled, I gotta say.

So WTF Philadelphia? Seems like the “city of brotherly love” still hasn’t figured out that women love things other than men—or, in some cases, in addition to men.

Is this what it’s like in the rest of the country? No, I imagine in some spots it’s probably worse.

Well, I’ve checked the Phillies’s ballpark off my list. I don’t have to go back; in fact, I probably won’t.


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Imperfection & authenticity — RIP Barbara Cook

Barbara Cook,
Cook in 2011, photo by Joella Marano, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the great singers of the American musical theatre passed away yesterday. I may be somewhat less than objective about her—I once drove 36 miles in a raging blizzard because I had front-row seats to a one-night-only concert—but I think some of the qualities that made Barbara Cook such a great singer parallel the qualities we need to be great writers.

Take this anecdote, from her obituary in The New York Times:

Teaching master classes at the Juilliard School in recent years, Ms. Cook often waved off her students’ preoccupation with vocal perfection, pushing them instead to get at the pain and joy beneath the notes.

“What is this song about?” she demanded of one bewildered class.

Writers may not always be dealing with the extremes of “pain and joy,” but we must have an emotional connection to what we write. It’s the only way we can hope that our audience will also have an emotional connection to the material. And without an emotional connection, without knowing what your message is about, they’re just listening to a bunch of words. And who cares about that?

Notice also Cook’s insistence that the singers stop obsessing about sounding perfect. Perfection is just a roadblock we create. Because it’s unattainable, we can constantly belittle ourselves when we fall short of it. In her concerts, Cook would sometimes stop in mid-song and start all over again if she sensed something was off—not because she wanted to sing perfectly, but because she wanted the audience know that she was just as human as we are.

Barbara Cook: Words matter, the truth matters

But one thing Barbara Cook pursued rigorously, especially in her career as a cabaret singer: the truth. When she sang a lyric, you knew exactly what it meant. And fortunately for us, later in life she discovered the work of Stephen Sondheim—devilishly hard music with lyrics that demand complete emotional connection. Asked by Broadway.com to name her three favorite songs to sing, she chose two by Sondheim. Sondheim, in turn, told The Washington Post in 2002:

“No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.”

After winning acclaim—and a Tony Award—on Broadway, Cook took a left turn into alcoholism and depression, emerging in the mid-1970s onto the cabaret circuit. This soon led to a recording contract with Columbia Records. And that is how her Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall record entered my collection: I gave blood one day while I was working at CBS and picked the record out of a bin set aside to reward donors. I never suspected it would be the start of a four-decade-long musical crush. But that’s a story for another time.

The New York Times obit again:

Paying less heed to the technical virtuosity that had thrilled audiences in big Broadway theaters, she now emphasized phrasing and styling to project a song’s emotions in smaller, more intimate settings.

The effect was striking. She had made no secret of her personal problems. But character and hard-won experience seemed to suffuse her songs, and it connected with audiences and critics. The reviewers took up a refrain, with phrases like “simple honesty,” “simplicity and directness” and “straightforward and declamatory.”

Obviously I added the emphasis, but this is authenticity. And it works as well when you’re reading a speech as it does when you’re singing a showtune. Connect with honesty—character flaws and all—and your audiences will connect with you.

Her three favorite songs to sing

“He Was Too Good to Me” by Rodgers and Hart (recording released in 1959) — bear with her through the verse; the emotion kicks in with the song proper. And listen to that crystalline soprano. If this song doesn’t have you reaching for the Kleenex, I don’t know what will.

Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”—yes, I’ve overdosed on this song too. But listen to the lyrics—you can hear every one.

The third song Cook mentioned was Sondheim’s “So Many People.” It’s the second half of this arrangement. Although it comes from Cook’s Sondheim album, this is Malcolm Gets singing. I couldn’t find a recording of Cook herself singing it.

Goodnight, dear Barbara Cook

I’ll leave you with Cook in her prime—1957—from her Tony Award-winning role, Marion the Librarian in The Music Man.

Meaningless words — politics today

I try to confine my political posts to Fridays, but due to user error, my Friday blog posted yesterday. I was just going to link to it again today but then I came across a Vox article about how the current political climate has become a collection of meaningless words.

“Republicans’ Obamacare repeal drive has revealed a political system where words have no meaning”

That’s a helluva headline. And the subhed isn’t any sunnier:

This is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Writer Ezra Klein doesn’t pull any punches

“This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.”

Lying is immoral, of course. Think about that the next time these lawmakers piously try to restrict women’s access to abortion and defund programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. But a bigger challenge than the havoc their policies are wreaking is the havoc created by their policy-making.

meaningless wordsAs Klein notes, the political system

“…is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery.”

Politicians may spin but we can generally count on them to do something approximating what they say they will do. Klein again:

“That is not the case here.”

McConnell’s meaningless words

Klein offers some choice selections from “Restoring the Senate,” a speech Mitch McConnell gave in 2014. It includes gems like:

“…if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife.”

He also bemoaned the demise of the Senate’s “vigorous committee process,” and promised he would restore it, if given the chance:

“There’s a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. Well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become. Bills should go through committee. And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”

If the Democrats got the opportunity to filibuster this healthcare bill, forged “in the Majority Leader’s conference room” (a practice McConnell decried just three years ago)—if we had the opportunity to filibuster, I think they should take the floor, one after the other, and read McConnell’s words into the record. Because the things he spoke out against are a blueprint for everything he is now doing.

Meaningless words, empty gestures

John McCain, former American hero, returned early from his taxpayer-funded brain surgery and spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about returning to the “normal order” of things—the committee process, bipartisan cooperation—the kind of utopia McConnell laid out in his 2014 speech.

Opponents of the bill needed just one vote to stop McConnell’s Motion to Proceed. McCain’s vote. In an alternate reality, we might expect him to vote against the motion. Sadly, we’re living in the reality where words have no meaning. Of course he voted Aye.
UPDATE: Except to John McCain, whose 11th hour No vote struck the final blow. Had he signaled his intention to vote No earlier, his Republican colleagues might have had time to retrench and try again. “Wait for the show,” he told a Democratic colleague as they headed to the Senate floor.

Klein concludes:

“Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.”


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“Lordy!” — get sticky with colloquialisms

Lordy
“Lordy,” indeed.

I didn’t have time to watch Jim Comey’s testimony live yesterday: I had to prep for the writing class I lead on Thursdays. And after that, I had to dive back into The Project That Ate My Week™, whose deadline looms tomorrow. (I’ll make it; I always do.)

But I have caught snippets of the coverage, read bits of news articles here and there. And one word sticks out for me—and apparently for many other people too:

“Lordy”

It’s certainly not the most important thing the former FBI Director said. It won’t be a central feature of the future analyses written about this key turning point in American history. If there’s a future in which to write histories.

But it may just be the “stickiest”—most memorable—sentence to emerge from his testimony:

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Why “Lordy” matters

Think about all the ways Comey could have phrased that response:

“I certainly hope there are tapes.”

“I would welcome the release of those tapes, should they exist.”

Those are plausible examples of bureaucrat-ese. And boring as hell. Or as we can imagine Comey might say, “as heck.”

But “Lordy” takes the information out of the hearing room and puts it out in the real world. I was going to say “on the street” but that street would be somewhere in Mayberry. And that’s part of what makes it sticky. It’s somehow not of our world, so our brains hang onto it a little longer than they would a more familiar word. We turn it over, examine it from all angles. And in examining the unfamiliar word, we also hang onto the rest of the sentence: “I hope there are tapes.”

Of course, Comey was talking about the tapes that Tr*mp claimed to have of their private conversations. But when we get to thinking about those tapes, we can’t help but be reminded of those other tapes, the more salacious tapes the Russians are rumored to have. The more we think about tapes in connection with that man in the White House, the worse it is for him. And “Lordy”—lordy, lordy, we can’t let go of that word. And the tapes that follow it.

Straight from the heart

“Lordy” did not come from a lawyer or a communications consultant. It’s a colloquialism—informal language; it’s just the way people talk. Straight from the heart.

If you want people to listen to you, a communications consultant can help. But if you want people to remember you, speak straight from the heart. (And—shhh!—a great communications consultant can help there too.)

A well-placed colloquialism can have a lasting impact.


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Writing advice from Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel in 1928, Public Domain,

No doubt you’ve heard of Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer who liberated women from stiff, formal clothing and popularized the still-ubiquitous “Little Black Dress.” Her fashion advice remains legendary—just Google “remove one accessory” and your screen will fill with blogs and articles quoting or misquoting her famous dictum

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

But while Chanel intended that as fashion advice, I think it works just as well for writers.

How many adverbs have you used? Surely you don’t need them all. And those adjectives—wouldn’t a few descriptive phrases enliven your work more?

Of course, before you can revise—your outfit or your writing—you have to create it first. Write until you’ve finished the draft. But before it “leaves the house,” give it a good once-over. Is every word, every sentence, necessary? If it isn’t—copy, cut, and paste. Slap it into the writer’s equivalent of a jewelry box, the Outtakes file.

More advice from Coco Chanel

“Take one thing off” may be Chanel’s most-quoted piece of advice. But I found another one I like quite a lot in this slideshow from Australian Vogue:

“In order to be irreplaceable one must be different.”

While we’re on the subject of revising, I’d lop off “In order” at the top of that sentence. But let’s not blame Chanel; perhaps it got added in translation.

“To be irreplaceable, one must be different.” I tell my writers a variation of this all the time. And my clients, too. They talk about subjects that thousands—millions—of people have already talked about: diversity, ethics, management. How can they differentiate themselves from the crowd? By weaving their own stories into the mix. No one else has had your experiences, has your perspective.

Make your communications irreplaceable—and your ideas memorable—by being your own, unique self. (Little Black Dress optional.)


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May the Fourth Be with You — puns and when to use them

“Puns are the lowest form of humor.”

My parents may have said that to me more often than anything else—more often, even, than “Clean up your room.” And believe me, my room always needed cleaning. But I could never resist a good pun. Or a bad one, for that matter.

My favorite Star Wars pun is not “May the Fourth Be with You.” It’s

Metaphors Be with You

Back in the early ’80s I had a sweatshirt from the National Writers Union with that line on the front. I spent my last $20 on it, but it made me so happy.

punsPuns—the “feeblest species” of humor?

Besides my parents—who, being parents, were wrong about so many things—who else says puns are the lowest form of humor?

Well, British poet John Dryden said it way back in the 17th century. According to this op-ed The New York Times published in 2009, Dryden called puns “the lowest and most groveling kind of wit.” He must have hated Shakespeare. Shakespeare punned with abandon—using them to intensify humor in some scenes, and pathos in others.

Ah, but the author gives old Will a pass:

“Yet [Shakespeare] is guilty less of punning than wordplay, which Elizabethan taste considered more a sign of literary refinement than humor…”

When is a pun not a pun? The answer seems to be “when you’re an Elizabethan…or a law student.” Yes, scroll down to read the author’s bona fides: He was a law student when he wrote this piece. The law depends on words meaning what they say they mean; and while I know many lawyers with fine senses of humor, I can easily imagine a law student losing his after too many long nights in the library.

“Puns are the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to resolve the semantic confusion.”

Now I’m not a big fan of long-term semantic confusion (see Trump, Donald J.), but a momentary mix-up—I think it’s a sign of a superior intellect, myself. Case in point, Stephen Sondheim, whose lyrics are full of puns. The first one that comes to mind is the lyric from “I’m Still Here,” in which a former Follies girl reflects on her life:

First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone’s mother, then you’re camp.
Then you career from career to career.
I’m almost through my memoirs,
But I’m here.

The switch between “career” as verb and noun—I find it dizzyingly brilliant.

Some say puns are the lowest form of humor; I think people who dislike puns are the lowest form of people. Okay, that may be hyperbole (see Trump, Donald J.).

Perhaps Oscar Levant, one of the signature wits of the early 20th century, said it best:

“A pun is the lowest form of humor—when you don’t think of it first.”


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