Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Nope: Unintended

Ask Lillet: I am really not One of Those People. I didn't spoil anyone's 99/00 New Year's Eve by insisting that the new millennium wouldn't begin until the following year. I won't correct anyone's grammar unless they're paying me to do so. I will happily hand you a hatchet with which to split infinitives and will only mutter to myself when someone conflates irony and coincidence. I'm fine with the hyperbolic use of "literally."

But I can no longer abide the misuse of the phrase "no pun intended." It's more than linguistic confusion; it's a bit of a social lie.

I heard two egregious examples of this on ABC's Oscar post-game show. The first was by one of those television people so obsequiously mewling that they can be trusted only to harass people trying to go to a party. As Hillary Swank swept past, we were treated to a description of the glorious arc of her career. It seems that some thought she would not live up to the Oscar she won for "Boys Don't Cry," but, we learned, "she came out swinging ... no pun intended." The second was by ABC's fashion expert who described the women (and only women) with ill-fitting dresses as "tonight's misfits, no pun intended."

The problem here turns on two confusions. One is the meaning of the word "pun." The other is the meaning of the word "intended."

A pun is the intentional confusion of similar-sounding words. To say that Hillary Swank "came out swinging" in "Million Dollar Baby" isn't a pun at all; it's a metaphor, a rather tired one, in other words, a cliché, and made worse by its groaningly obvious context. The fashion expert was a little bit closer to punning, but the "fit" in "misfit" and "ill-fitting" is just the same "fit." When making a pun it's a good idea to have at least two different words in mind.

What's really cringe-making about "come out swinging" isn't that pun and metaphor were confused, but that I am sure that this person meant to make this connection between Swank's supposed comeback and the fact that she had just won an award for playing a boxer. In other words, pun or not, it was very much intended. So by telling us that no pun was intended, she's not only mistaken about what she said, she's lying about it.

It's not a malicious lie; it's a lie of social anxiety, a way of saying, "I'm not really comfortable with this language thing, and I'm not quite sure what it is I just said, so let me use this other cliché as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card."

But, really, is it too much to ask that the people who are well-paid to speak to large audiences be reasonably comfortable with language?


Blogger Dexter Sinister said...

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5:26 PM  
Blogger Dexter Sinister said...

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5:34 PM  
Blogger Dexter Sinister said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:47 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

*wipes tears from eyes*

That was beautiful. You've seriously made my day now (which has in all other respects been quite shitty).

5:47 PM  
Blogger Dexter Sinister said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Carson Day said...

I appreciate grammar Nazis more than most. I even like punctuation Nazis. But one really should obtain the proper definition of the term in question before hounding people for abusing words or concepts.

A deliberate play on two different possible senses of a word -- as when one refers to the resurrection of bodies as a "dead giveaway" that some people were not meant to stay dead -- certainly qualifies as a pun. In this case, it is even a funny one.

Dictionary.com says (correctly) that a pun is "A play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same word and sometimes on the similar sense or sound of different words."

So next time you come out swinging, please rebuke correctly for grammar crimes, definition felonies, and punctuation misdemeanors.

No one likes false punishment. Get it? PUNishment? Oh, nevermind.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Trey Desolay said...

Oh, I'm aware that not all puns are ideophonic. My definition wasn't meant to be exact, but I stand by it, as words are trivially "similar-sounding" to themselves.

There is only one meaning of "swing" here, and that is (dictionary.com) "to hit at something with a sweeping motion of the arm." The only difference is in usage, between the literal - what she did in the movie - and the metaphorical - what she did by virtue of making the movie. Dexter Sinsiter's belabored reworking would indeed have been a pun, as it turns on two different meanings.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Dexter Sinister said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:02 PM  
Blogger Lord Chimmy said...

Would "I love fucking doughnuts" count as a pun?

11:49 PM  
Blogger Donkey Patrol said...


You guys are a trip! I feel like I stumbled into an AB conversation betwixt English majors and I need to C my way out! C sounds like 'see' sounds like 'sea'. So if I'm talking about leaving a conversation and "C"ing my way out, is that a pun? All in all, this conversation was highly entertaining and I appreciate the blog. But the burning question I have is this: Lillet and Tray-do you guys read each others' blogs before you submit them? I conjecture that you don't, but if you do, does it drive you both nuts to be correcting each other all day?

9:50 AM  
Blogger Lillet Langtry said...

Hello "DP,"

Actually, we don't read each other's posts -- we like to surprise each other. And we have yet to need to correct each other, actually -- did you see that somewhere?

We have different schedules at present, so being suprised by each other's posts is a lot like leaving each other little secret notes.

I'm glad you were entertained! Have a great day!

10:15 AM  
Blogger uscu2 said...

My dear friend Donkey Patrol beat me to the punch. I honestly was going to tell Trey I thoroughly enjoyed the post. Despite the fact that my grammar and punctuation has slipped drastically ever since the beginning of massive use of e-mail and internet I am still greatly interested in it.

I couldn't agree more with your thoughts on the use of puns. The other thing I find irritating are sports commentators or any commentators in general. Seeing as how I watch massive amounts of sports, I find it INCREDIBLY unnerving when people speak incorrectly or butcher the language. I realize part of the persons job is to break down the game or action, but your job is to speak. Therefore you should have a somewhat decent mastery of the English language.

Good post on the whole, and I couldn't agree more.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Donkey Patrol said...

Hey, let's digress:

I posted a blog on my site, and since no one ever reads it, I need to use Lillet and Trey as a crutch to get people to listen to me. Thanks guys for being both my crutch and megaphone. SO! With that said I have a thought provoking question which I would like you all to think about. Which personality flaw do you believe is more odious: being Over Competitive or Overly Compassionate? I have no real agenda or reason to ask the question other than to hear what you all think. If you want to see more detail on the idea, go to www.keithandandrew.blogspot.com. While you're there, check out our old posts and see how Lillet and Trey rip me a new one in regards to my French pretzels. It was quite a hilarious little quibble if I do say so myself.

And uscu2, I'm going to be a huge douchebag:
"Despite the fact that my grammar and punctuation has slipped drastically..."

Shouldn't that be 'have slipped'? I could be wrong, but am probably not. TREATED!

11:45 AM  
Blogger Mika said...

Dexter Sinister's removal of all his comments really piques my curiosity! What'd I miss?

You make a fabulously interesting point—that each of the supposed puns here relies on two meanings that aren't sufficiently distinct, since one is simply the other taken metaphorically. Before addressing the point directly, allow me to quote the enduring comment made by Vin Diesel, who as xXx wakes up from a drugged sleep to find himself among a group of anxious men wearing parachutes being forced out of the rear of an airplane at 10,000 feet, in a test of their ability to cope with extreme situations: "Are you kidding me? I live for this shit!"

I disagree with you, here, Trey: in my view these are legitimate puns primarily because the metaphors are so dead as to have become stand-alone figures of speech. I could imagine my eight-year-old correctly using the phrase "come out swinging" in a sentence without realizing that it derives from boxing. He doesn't, in other words, have to interpret it as a metaphor (the astonishing mental process that makes the study of metaphor so fascinating). By the same token, I imagine most people who use the word "misfit" aren't thinking about clothes.

Insofar as you take some utterance as a metaphor, you are obliged to deny its literal meaning (otherwise you wouldn't be taking it as a metaphor). Usually, this is easily done, since usually the literal meaning makes no sense or at least seems prima facie mistaken: viz., "Joe is a tiger it battle" (assuming that Joe is not in fact a tiger). In the movie Two Tigers, however, (which i didn't see) it might be the case that Joe is not only a tiger in battle but actually is a tiger, in battle. In which case the utterance would be funny and the humor would derive from its being true both as a hackneyed figure of speech and literally. And, I would say, its use there would constitute a pun.

Of course, it would be an intended pun. I totally agree with you on that issue. How weird is it that someone calculatedly comes up with a pun and then says, "No pun intended"? What's the problem with saying honestly, as we academic snoot types do in such circumstances (especially the totebaggers among us, fearing the audience might miss out on their cleverness), "Pun intended!"?

2:01 PM  
Blogger Mika said...

ok, i couldn't resist returning and posting this. the day before i read your original post, i was complaining in an e-mail to one friend about another whose deepest levels, formerly accessible to us, no longer are, now that she's been living with her boyfriend (neither of you guys knows this couple). superficially, she behaves exactly as before, and we are all still close. but there seem to be chambers of her heart our keys no longer will open. it feels as though we can no longer get to her. here is the sentence i wrote:

her very being is nevertheless wrapped at the core with layers of clay.

you see, um, "ironically," her boyfriend's name is . . . clay. he's a sculptor who works primarily in . . . you see.

pun? metaphor? punning metaphor? metaphoric pun? anyway it seemed on topic. thought the sentence might interest you. :-)

3:53 PM  
Blogger Trey Desolay said...

Mika, I agree that Mr. Fashion Arbiter was probably not thinking of tailoring when he uttered the word "misfit," and I'd have cut him a lot more slack (ahem) had I not heard this within five minutes of the "came out swinging" locution. And I wasn't very accurate in my first report. The strange thing about this one is that it was the utterance of "fit" and not that of "misfit" that lit the little lightbulb above his head. It went something like, "Now we need to talk about tonight's fashion misfits ... it's important when wearing such gowns to make sure that they fit properly ... no pun intended." Again, I think that this has a lot more to do with reaching for some rhetoric when you're surprised by what's come out of your mouth than it has to do with puns or intentions.

I agree as well that dead metaphors can be a rich source of puns OR's excellent "dead giveaway" is one such. This works because "dead" as a metaphor for "utter" or "complete" is so, well, dead, that "utter or complete" is now a meaning of "dead." There are "dead giveaways," one can be "dead on," something can be "dead ahead," I am "dead tired." I was prepared to bolster my claim that "come out swinging" could not be used to make such a dead-metaphor pun because I cannot think of a context outside of this phrase in which "swinging" means "to behave aggressively." In other words, the metaphor is not quite dead enough.

Yet now you have made me think about the phrase as semantic unit. If "come out swinging" can mean something like, "to behave aggressively from the outset," irrespective of any meaning of "swinging," then I can see how it can be used to pun on the phrase as taken literally. But this just makes the whole "no pun intended" thing even stranger.

I can make a dead-metaphor pun by saying that someone "has get up and go," because they got up and went, but only because the context of the dead metaphor is completely transparent. By contrast, I might say of a running back that he gained "the whole nine yards," and I might by doing so make a pun. But as I haven't the faintest idea of what the original meaning of "the whole nine yards" (as semantic unit) is, I can do so only — um — unintentionally.

If this is the case, if the ABC reporter was making a dead-metaphor pun, then I am wrong on both counts: she was indeed making a pun, and she did not — in fact could not — intend to. And then that would make the follow-up of "no pun intended" ... what?

Now that I have been thinking about almost nothing else for the past few days, I wonder. Are there utterances of "no pun intended" that are not either mistaken, dishonest, or completely totebaggy?

4:36 PM  
Blogger Lord Chimmy said...

I once heard that the "whole nine yards" was a reference to the belts of ammo used by fighter pilots in WWII. These belts were 9 yards long, so to go the whole nine yards was to be in a particularly difficult fire-fight. The mission was hard, but you survived by giving it everything you had.

I don't know if there is any truth behind this explanation.

11:40 PM  
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1:22 PM  
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12:02 PM  
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11:08 AM  
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