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We Aim to Please

By Francis Levy

Speaking at the recent climate talks in Paris, President Obama declaimed that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and back in March, Israel’s prime minister famously told Congress about Iran that “the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.” Punditry is alive and kicking. 

There should actually be an academic discipline devoted to it so that students can major in these pithy phrases and graduate students can go on to advanced degrees. Alexander Pope, who said “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” in his poem “An Essay on Criticism,” was a great pundit, and his work should be mandatory reading for scholars in the field. But punditry is also a pervasive part of both history and everyday life. Was it Buddhists with their emphasis on the here and now who discovered that one of the anodynes for addiction was the phrase “one day at a time”?

And then there’s Santayana’s famous “Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them” and Clausewitz’s famous dictum “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Some of these are not puns in the strict sense, since they do not involve wordplay of the kind you find in “Handel with care” or “Haydn go seek,” which are listed as examples of puns in the dictionary. But those who construct these turns of phrase, according to Merriam-Webster, are pundits or persons who know “a lot about a particular subject and express ideas and opinions about that subject publicly.”

And who came up with the pithy phrases “You aren’t what you do” and “Don’t quit before the miracle”?

“One door closes and another opens” is another popular homily, and blatantly untrue. “One door closes and another closes,” almost any recently laid off or divorced person will tell you. You may lose your job at the foundry and go on to sculpt the Venus de Milo, but usually you end up on unemployment. And what about divorcées? One door may have closed, but is there a pun that coalesces around the notion that the price you pay for inevitably marrying the same person all over again (a common dispirited complaint among those who remarry) is a lowering of net worth (due to the combination of legal bills and settlement)? 

Puns are interesting things. Sometimes a pun, like the one you see in some bathrooms, “We aim to please, will you aim too, please?” (a real bona fide one), can be very down to earth, and other times they can encompass a universe of emotions, like feminism’s oft-quoted “No is a sentence.” 

But pundits may find themselves struggling to deal with ideas that are too big for their britches. “He or she is in the hallway” is often used as an extension of the libelous “one door closes and another opens,” but it falls with a thud. What hallway, the one between the bedrooms or the one on the landing outside your apartment, if you live in a co-op or condo? And let’s take F.D.R.’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It’s a nice thought, but after Pearl Harbor one would have wagered that the only thing one had to fear was another attack at a vulnerable installation. 

Does Khrushchev’s infamous “We will bury you!” qualify as a pun? Certainly it’s been quoted, at least humorously, by a whole generation of baby boomers who lived in fear that Chicken Little was right and the sky was falling. Mel Brooks’s “It’s good to be the king” is not really a pun, but it’s become one because of how ubiquitously it’s used and the suggestiveness of its irony. 

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and “Where gold speaks every tongue is silent” are common sayings, created by pundits way back when, that are often used by language teachers who are seeking neat ways to introduce foreign words into one’s vocabulary. For instance, in Italian the latter is Dove l’oro parla, ogni lingua tace. What a good way to learn the nouns for gold and tongue! Here punditry performs a practical function that exceeds merely keeping the toilet seat free from urine.

To quote Dr. Seuss’s classic “The Cat in the Hat,” “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.” One rainy day when you don’t have anything better to do, try to make puns out of your life. You may have words of wisdom and you may remember Polonius’s “brevity is the soul of wit,” but it’s hard to be wise and pithy, two common attributes of punditry, at the same time. 

Or better yet, the next time you’re having one of those power struggles with your significant other, when “Would you rather be right or happy?” runs through your mind, try to think up a pun. You’ll likely become tongue-tied and the argument will end before it’s even had a chance to start.

Francis Levy, a Wainscott resident, is the author of the comic novels “Erotomania” and “Seven Days in Rio” and of the blog The Screaming Pope.

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