Friday, April 20, 2012

Oh, that's so Punny!

When I started writing my Constable Evan Evans mysteries set in Wales it seemed like a good idea to play with the word Evan or Evans in the title. So the first book was called Evans Above, and nine others followed with titles like Evan Help Us and Evan Only Knows. I don't think there were too many punny titles when I started that series in 1997, but toay, if you want to write a cozy mystery, it has to have a pun in its title. Some of them are witty and clever, some make me groan. I'm particularly fond of Avery Ames Quiche of Death, of Jill Churchill's Grime and Punishment and several of Tamar Myers books with titles like The Crepes of Wrath, Batter off Dead, Play it again, Spam. Then there is July Hyzy's Affairs of Steak and Lorna Barrett's Chapter and Hearse.

I won't give examples of the ones that make me groan. No sense in creating enemies among my fellow writers. Actually I think the titles are often thought up by the marketing department at the publishing houses and not the fault of writers at all.

But I have to confess, I'm fascinated by puns. Why do we like them or hate them? Why do some of them make us groan? They've been around forever, haven't they? Shakespeare uses them liberally in his comedies for a good laugh. But why should we laugh or applaud a play on words? it's not like slipping on a banana skin, after all. I think it must have something to do with our inner satisfaction at being literate enough to know that we get the joke. Or perhaps our early ancestors made up puns to show that they were good at this new language thing! If anyone out there is a Latin scholar--were there puns in ancient Rome? Were there even puns on those old Assyrian tablets?

I've actually always loved them. The first ones I remember were signs on shops in our village. The butchers shop said, "Happy to Meat You," and the fishmonger said, "If you want fish, here is the plaice." Even the coal merchant joined in with "one good tun deserves another." We were obviously quite a witty village!
Then the hairdressers got into the act. Shear Locks, A Cut Above, I'm sure your town has a hairdressing salon with a punny name. So why the punny names? Do they make us sit up and take notice? Make us think that a witty person inhabits that premises? Would a punny name drive you to a particular hairdresser, or make you buy a particular book, for that matter? I'm not sure.

What do you feel about puns--love 'em or hate 'em? Anyone have a favorite pun to share?


  1. Rhys, we have "Hair We Are" and "Shear Madness"...your village sounds like a hoot!

    My golf mystery titles slid in the direction of punny--the worst was probably PUTT TO DEATH. I always thought the trouble with this kind of title was you had no chance of the book being taken seriously, right from the beginning. Maybe that's okay, but it bothered me. (I don't see your Evans books that way--the titles were clever rather than silly.)

  2. Rhys, what a fun village!

    The ancient Romans loved puns, and many (usually obscene) were scribbled on walls as graffiti. the Romans had a lot of graffiti--maybe because they built so many majestic buildings.

    I hate to miss this discussion today, which promises to be great fun, but I'm off to teach writing workshops. Have pun, Reds!

  3. Rhys,
    That's an interesting questions: why we like puns. Sometimes I think it IS for the GROAN afterward, because none them are every really make-you-laugh funny. I think fondly of puns because my father was the king of them. But he waited for and expected the groan. It's almost not worth making them without the groan.

    I agree with Roberta, the pun title sets you up to not take the story seriously. But I think that also might be part of the appeal of the cozy - you are talking about something gruesome - a murder - but not with all the gruesome details. The story is more about the solution than the gory problem.

  4. I actually wrote an undergraduate thesis on the use of puns and metaphors in advertising, so I am a fan. I remember there being a whole lot of linguistic analysis (most of which I've forgotten by now), but the bottom line is that puns are puzzles for us to figure out. I think we like them because we feel a sense of accomplishment in untangling the double meanings and references.

    The reason (I decided) they're used in marketing so much makes them good for book titles too: viewers/readers spend more time processing the words and therefore more time seeing the message (and our books).

  5. I've checked the Crepes of Wrath but haven't read it, I think it is a good book, seems interesting. Linda, I also know the Romans have created the graffiti, do you know any book on the subject?

  6. Rhys, I love your Evans titles--they seem more clever than punny to me. And your Welsh village!

    I do love a good pun, although I can't use them in my titles. Maybe our love of puns is as simple as the human need for playfulness. We play with other things--why not words?

    It does seem to me that the British use puns more than Americans. Do you think that's true?

    And what about puns in other languages, those of you who are multi-lingual?

  7. My husband wrote an entire book of cartoons and puns based on gnus. He draws hilarious looking gnus.
    Noodles were baby gnus
    Neurosurgeon was a row of linebacker-gnus running.
    He also wrote a wonderful series of cartoon and puns with terns.

    His pun/cartoons came THIS close to getting published Christopher Cerf loved it (son of pun-meister Bennett Cerf).

  8. Lucy--I think that was a mistake I made with the Evan series. They weren't that cozy, in fact the later books touched on some really dark subjects, but serious readers often wouldn't try them because of the title while cozy readers might have been disappointed at the darkness of the plot.

  9. Hallie, I love books like that. Remember the "catastrophe" books? I once saw a book about terns. I still remember the nasty tern. And I once played with miss and bull--you know Mistake doing shoplifting and adorable as a bull with long eyelashes.
    I'd love to have seen the gnu book!

  10. For me, it is the groan effect of puns and the fact that my friend, Jude, is a pun-master, so every time I hear a good one I think of her. One of my favorite punny titles is the kids' book Blue Moo, by Sandra Boynton.

    Mr. Wonderful has been lobbying hard to name one of my Magical Cats books Abra-cat-dabra.

  11. I love puns. A groaner of a punny book title has never kept me from reading the book. I am sorry, Rhys, that the Evans titles may have kept people from considering reading your books (which I loved). Even if a title does nothing for me, I look through a book before I buy it or borrow it from the library. It never really occurred to me that someone would be turned off by a pun in the title.

    My pastor's homilies usually contain at least one bad pun. People sit there waiting for it! It's one way to get people to listen!

    Some business names that I enjoy around here:
    -a computer repair service called Effing Computers (!);
    -two doggy day care businesses -one called Who's Your Doggie?
    and another called Bark Avenue.

  12. What is it about pet grooming? Here near Boston there's LaundroMutt (self service dog wash).

  13. Hi,

    There are puns in the Old Testament,I learned recently. Sorry I can't dig up an example for you.

  14. I'm not a huge fan of puns although I do appreciate a really clever one. Molly Macrae's Lawn Order gave me a chuckle. And I own a garden book called Trowel and Error.
    I've seen at least two Mexican restaurants/bars called Tequila Mockingbird.

  15. I like the idea o us enjoying puns because we enjoy word play. There is something clever about them, even if there is a groan at the end. Rhys-I loved your Evans books. I felt they grew darker as he grew and had more responsibilities. Anyway, he was my intro to your writing so that is good.

  16. Hi Rhys,

    Yes, it seems puns have been with us forever. When I studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the scrolls has a play on words, a pun referring to lawyers. The word used for lawyer is the same as the word that means "seeker of smooth things (slippery)." [Sorry, I'd have to find my notes to recall the scroll and reference, but I could do it, given time, if anyone is really interested.]

    All cultures seem to do this with words. In THE JESUIT RELATIONS AND ALLIED DOCUMENTS there is reference to a Mohawk use of a word for missionary that, in translation to English, means "burned to a crisp."

  17. Reine-what a wonderful pair of words-lawyers were loved then too!

  18. I love Christopher Cerf..oh, we MUSt talk, Hallie!

    Has anyone read the book The WOrld's Largest Cheese? DO you remmber See The Merino Stnading There? Just checking..

    James Thurber (sigh, my hero) was my introduction to puns..

  19. intersting topic - I do like some books with Punny titles, I think they can draw you to a book or not depending on what you like to read.

    Happy writing !


  20. On the Evan book puns: that's what got my attention in the first place and turned me into a Rhys Bowen fan. :)

    On puns: a local hot dog place where I used to live was called Willie's Weenie Wagon with a motto of "We relish your buns."

  21. I've also experienced some quirky greeting from the staffs of dog grooming salon in Long island where I brought my dog. I thought the shop is really fun, they've got a lot of humorous and catchy room decorations in there. I just remember those when I read the, "Happy to Meat you" title. Perhaps I should also try reading them.

  22. Hi Hannah! Have you tried bringing your beloved pet dog in a "natural pet spa"? Try bringing your dog there and see for yourself or you may want just to try using natural pet shampoo and conditioner to your best bud.

  23. Thanks for the interesting and very useful topic.