By Anatoly Liberman
Some time ago I received a question about the origin of pun. Since an answer to it would have taken up all the space I have for my monthly gleanings, I decided to devote a special post to this word. Our correspondent noticed that pun and pundit appeared in English at nearly the same time, that a pun “heaps together” different meanings (so Skeat), while the root of pundit (Sanskrit for “learned man”) also means “to heap, pile up.” Moreover, bunk “berth” may likewise go back to a word for “heap.” Is it possible that pundit and bunk provide a clue to the origin of pun? We had a nice email exchange about bunk in etymology, but I left the answer for the blog, to heighten the questioner’s suspense.
According to a popular notion, the aim of etymology is to discover the roots from which words sprout. This belief leads to setting up sound complexes that are endowed with a rather vague or even abstract meaning and are responsible for the emergence of siblings across a broad spectrum of languages. It is usually forgotten that the reconstructed roots never had an independent existence. True, the authors of older works believed in a stage of pure roots in the history of Indo-European, but this stage is a mirage, a vision of virile and highly potent stubs. To discover the origin of a word, one should know the social environment in which it was coined and its earliest meaning. Even if for the sake of argument we agree that the root pun- “heap” never lost its grip on speakers’ minds (or their Freudian-Jungian subconscious), why should it have produced the English word pun in the middle of the 18th century, millennia after it gave birth to Sanskrit pundit and long after the appearance of the putative Scandinavian etymon of bunk?
The date of the earliest citation of pun given in the first edition of the OED is 1669. Now a 1644 example is known. The word seems to have emerged some time around 1640. This date tallies with the fact that Abraham Cowley’s comedy The Guardian (acted 1641) has a character Mr. Puny described as “a young Gallant, a pretender to Wit.” In the revised version of the play (1661), the adjective Punish occurs, with reference to that gentleman’s kind of wit. Cowley does not use the word pun, and we do not know how the name and the adjective were pronounced. On paper, Puny and Punish look like puny “tiny” and the verb punish respectively. Both must have had punning connotations. Names of this type were popular in Cowley’s days. For instance, Goldsmith and Sheridan have Mr. Slang (unfortunately, no lines are assigned to him) and Mr. Fag (fag “servant”). 18th-century dictionaries feature pun, which they define as quibble, witty conceit, fancy, and clench. “Play on words” was also mentioned regularly, but the original connotation of pun seems to have been “an over-subtle distinction” (this is what clench, a side-form of clinch means), rather than what we today understand by it. In any case, the heaping up of meanings need not have been its initial sense. So let us forget bunk (with its possible etymon bunker), and see what pundits say on the subject.
From the outset, two forms have competed in attempts to etymologize pun: French pointe and Engl. pun “to pound,” the latter from Old Engl. punian (none of my references antedates 1730, the year Nathaniel Bailey’s dictionary was published). But alongside those two, numerous wild conjectures abounded. Among the suggested sources of pun words beginning with f- show up (for example, Engl. fun and a made up Icelandic adjective related to funi “fire, flame”), Irish Gaelic bun “root, foundation, etc.” and its Welsh cognate, Latin punica (or Engl. Punic), as in fides punica “Punic faith” (that is, “treachery”), a segment of the phrase play upon (words), and even the blend of puzzle and conundrum. One sometimes wishes for a punitive expedition against the people who offer such hypotheses, but since they are all dead and therefore invulnerable to my slings and arrows, the raid has to be called off.
Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary lists two homonyms of pun: pun “a slow inactive person,” usually applied to female servants” (I have no clue to its origin, but the meaning is as far removed from that of pun “play on words,” as can be), and obsolete Scots pun “sham,” of which one example is given (“A flattern’ title’s but a pun”) and which hardly means “sham,” for such a word is not listed in either of the two great dictionaries of the Scottish tongue. Skeat was a stubborn defender of the punian etymology. In a pun, he said, one pounds words, bends them into new senses, and hammers at forced similes. Skeat’s reputation lent respectability to this idea, and it is still mentioned in modern books. The verb pun, a “rustic” variant of pound, is the least probable source of a word that must have been coined by the wits intent on word play, and the path from beating (pounding) to punning is hard to detect. Yet Skeat clung to this derivation even in the 1910 edition of his dictionary. Therefore, it comes as a surprise that in the last concise version, published practically at the same time, he switched to a variant of the French etymology. What could cause this sudden change of heart? The great man is dead too, so that there is no one to ask.
French pointe could not become Engl. pun for phonetic reasons, and the net was cast for the Romance words beginning with the syllable pun. The catch contained Latin punctilio and Italian puntiglio derived from it. The OED records the short-lived synonyms of pun, namely punnet and pundigrion; yet pun cannot be a clipped form of either. Rather punnet is a mildly amusing diminutive of pun. Pundigrion is baffling. An illiterate spelling of punctilio (Earnest Weekley’s suggestion)? But isn’t it a facetious formation, like our rumbustious, rambunctious, scrumptious, and the rest? Given a word that those playful wits understood as pointe d’esprit, why shouldn’t they have enjoyed altering it out of mischief? The incomprehensible -degrion resembles the second half of a nobleman’s title (Manon’s Le Chevalier des Grieux comes to mind at once) or -drion of synedrion, the Greek for Sanhedrin “the supreme counsel of the Jews” (the more remote the association, the better). Or Rabelais’s Pantagruel could have inspired the punsters. Besides, in the 16th and the 17th century there were rather numerous words like tatterdemalion, with -de- in the middle and a wild tail. In any case, it is more likely that pundigrion is an extension of pun than that pun is a clipped form of it. The unrecorded dialectal French words that could have become Engl. pundigrion (Leo Spitzer gives several of them) are of little interest just because they are unrecorded.
18th-century literati loved clipping long words: mobile (vulgus) became mob, citizen became cit, and so forth (the entry on pun in the OED ends with a list of such words, including snob, but snob should be expunged from it). Jonathan Swift detested trendy monosyllables of whatever origin, and one can easily imagine what he would have said if flooded with our bus, cab, math, prof, lab, doc, prom, and hundreds of others or if he were invited to speak at the U. of U. (which stands for the University of Utah; “Do you work at the big U.?” is a question I constantly hear, for we have several branches scattered all over the state). The etymology of pun will remain unresolved, but it is probably a clipped form. A Latin etymon (punctilio) appears to be more plausible than Italian puntiglio.
Special words for “pun” are not too common. As a rule, people say simply “play on words.” However, French has calembour, whose origin is as problematic as that of pun. It found acceptance in all the Slavic language and German. In German, folk etymology changed calembour beyond recognition (Kalauer). A feeble attempt was made in the 19th century to introduce calembre into English (the OED lists two insignificant examples), but English stayed with pun. Nothing can be said against this choice, but regrettably, we have lost clench.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”