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BACCHUS IN THE LABORATORY: IN DEFENSE OF SCIENTIFIC PUNS SCOTr F. GILBERT* Puns are means by which boundaries between ideas and people are broken down and redefined. I hope to demonstrate that the pun in general and the scientific pun in particular are involved in two sets of boundary phenomena. In the first instance, the boundaries separating mutually exclusive concepts are broken down so that the meaning ofone word penetrates into another. In the second case, the boundaries separating individual people are redefined on the basis of the appreciation of the pun. This latter property of puns has significant educational importance. The basis of punning is the destruction of categories that separate one word or concept from another. A word with a precise definition is seen to partake in the definition of some other word. A physicist had two boys who went into cattle ranching. When asked to suggest a name for the ranch, the wise old man suggested, " 'Focus.' It's where the sun's rays meet." Here, two widely disparate concepts, that of two male sibs cattle ranching and that of refraction of solar light by a lens, are shown to have something in common. A connection has been made between the totally distinct ideas. Sometimes the pun suggests that the ideas are not so separate, as in the story of the bride at the church who thinks, "aisle, altar, hymn." Punning makes forbidden connections, uniting what should rationally be kept separate. The notion of the destruction of boundaries was well known to the ancients. In word magic, homonymy meant that one concept mingled with the other. Indeed, two Confucian scholars were put to The author thanks Andrew Stein-Dionne, Polly Soames, Anna Flaxis, and other members of the Millie Graham Purcell Laboratories for their technical assistance. *Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania 19081.© 1985 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/86/290 1 -046 1 $0 1 .00 148 J Scott F. Gilbert · Bacchus in the Laboratory death by the Emperor Chu Yang-chang when they sent him a message using the word sheng for birth. The emperor felt that this was a pun on the word seng (monk), referring to his lowly origin. In the Bible, puns are used for their explanatory power. Adam, for instance, was made of clay (adama), and Jesus founded his church upon the rock (petros) of Peter. Puns were used for their very property of uniting disparate categories and words. The god who destroys rational, duly constituted boundaries is, of course, Bacchus. It is Bacchus who (as in Euripides' The Bacchae) breaks down the prison walls and who dissolves the distinction between masculine and feminine, love and death, victor and victim. Bacchus is the god of wine, whose alternative name is Liber, itself a complex pun connoting free (liber; as in the liberal arts) and childlike (the Latin word for child is also liber). Bacchus is the liberator, the breaker of boundaries. Indeed, those who partake in the fruits of this god are made to feel both childlike and free from restrictions. Childishness is associated with puns, and alcohol is a great solvent for dissolving barriers and inhibitions. If one of the central notions of creativity is that it makes unseen connections between ideas, alcohol and puns have been useful tools for promoting creative acts. Freud's notion that punning is a regression to an infantile state before word boundaries were established is a useful concept, for a pun is a way of destroying the adult boundaries that society has established between ideas. Double entendres involve thinking in a way that is prohibited by responsible adults. It is no accident that so many puns involve the sexual and scatological. Similarly, Samuel Johnson's too-oft-quoted remark that a man who would pun would as soon pick your pocket is also apt. In picking a pocket, the social distinction between mine and thine is eliminated. The thief has no respect for socially ordained boundaries. Neither does the punster. Punning is fun; and the fun is that of throwing a pie in Miss Grundy's sour face. The humor in a pun, however, is different than that found in...


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