Monday, April 21, 2008

No pun intended. None taken.

...so when someone says the kids were literally bouncing of the walls I'm not likely to imagine a bunch of kids pressing against the upright surface of a room's physical limit with enough force to create potential energy in the opposite direction resulting in a shift to kinetic energy away from that surface. Unless I've seen it happen before. Some kids are pretty acrobatic. My niece likes to literally climb the walls. Really. Put her in a narrow enough hallway she will climb the walls.

Like most linguists I don't care when people use literally to mean something other than 'in a non-metaphorical sense.' Really I don't. Because words are allowed to be flexible. Phrases too. I'm getting used to 'begs the question' when it's used to mean 'makes the question obvious.' The key here is recognizing that I've grown accustomed to a meaning simply through a convention that is no more intrinsically appropriate than any other convention.

It also helps that there are plenty of ways to figure out what a speaker means when using words and phrases in a new way. It's what we're constantly doing while communicating. You hear a phrase and if it doesn't work with your first understanding, you try another one or you read the context and figure out a more feasible understanding.

Now consider a phrase like no pun intended. It's often used when a phrase or word is used in a way that could have two meanings -- usually a literal one and metaphorical one -- one of which provides a humorous or biting or satirical comment on the topic discussed. Believe it or not I'm willing to do a little complaining about the phrase. But not on linguistic grounds. What I hold against this parenthetical is that in writing it's almost always a lie. And it's used to celebrate a joke that wouldn't need the attention if it was good enough in the first place.

When spoken it's often a quick reaction to the sudden realization that a phrase could be taken more than one way. And sometimes it helps to assure the listener that no disrespect or lightness is intended. A friend of mine once wrote an article about a young boy who died of AIDS. He began the touching story with a reference to the boy's "infectious laugh". It was not until I read the story in the paper and called it to his attention that he caught the double meaning. He really didn't intend that pun. Had he noticed it he would have changed the wording. He would not have simply added the parenthetical disclaimer. Writing allows that type of edition.

When speaking we can't delete. So the phrase is sometimes useful. Tho when great offense might be taken I can't imagine that a simple 'no pun intended' is really going to do the trick. It's more likely to be another similar but effectively different phrase like 'I didn't intend that pun' Probably with an apology.

In writing it's the annoying equivalent of an elbow nudge. Or worse yet that "baDUM-pum" rimshot performed by overeager class clowns up until their first year in college.

Here are two examples from a writer who likes the trick enough to stack them back-to-back.
In the headline: Porn Star Sticks Up (No Pun Intended) For Gene Simmons
And in the lead: Porn star Taylor Wane is coming (no pun intended) to the defense of porn star Gene Simmons.

Not intended? Sure.

Sometimes the phrase lets you know there was a pun. Sometimes it lets you know that one is on the way. In the latter case the parenthetical will often come between the determiner and the NP --

My pods are in a holding pattern and growing at a (no pun intended) 'snail's pace'. (here)

he gives Jumper a no-pun-intended jolt of much-needed electricity. (here)

-- or before the conjunction but

No pun intended but I am in the same boat as you. (here: in a comment to a woman whose husband ignores her for his fishing and hunting errands)

No pun intended, but we thought, with the Navy afloat, we'll be afloat, DaSilva says. (here)

So you hear the phrase and you either think (or read) back to find the pun or you wait for it to reach you.

Tony Rafael uses the phrase twice early in a presentation on The Mexica Mafia --the topic and title of his book-- speaking in Los Angeles. The event was hosted by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. October 23 2007.

You have to wonder if it's insanity or some kind of hubris that would bring fifteen thousand known criminals out into the open in broad daylight to assemble and have essentially a gang summit within the very shadow of the Los Angeles Police Department Academy.

And no pun intended but law enforcement at that time in 1992 as recently as 1992 really didn't consider the Mexican Mafia as a significant threat. Some gang cops saw evidence of it on the street. They attributed a few crimes to it but they never really saw it as an organization until that day in September in 1992. They were literally caught flat-footed -- again no pun intended. The fact that they could do this in broad daylight really started law enforcement scratching their heads about the power and influence of this group.


The second use probably refers to the phrase flat-footed. It's an interesting use of both literally and no pun intended in reference to the same phrase. He's announcing that he's aware of the double meaning but assuring us that he doesn't intend it.

The first use isn't so clear. Is he referring to the double meaning of within the very shadow? It's odd that he offers the parenthetical after the and setup to the next topic. But that changeover is fuzzy. He might in fact be using the phrase reactively. Or is he really anticipating on the street as the possible pun? I doubt it. There's quite a gap between the two.

I'm not sure. It sounds like he thought he was about to offer a pun but he never actually puts it out there.

The C-SPAN2 page on the program is here. You should be able to watch if you have a RealMedia plugin. This section is about 5 minutes in. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. "No pun intended" can also be annoying when spoken.

    Sometimes people will say "no pun intended" because they just recognized that the thing they said was a pun and they want you to celebrate their cleverness. "No pun intended" becomes "hey look at me."

    Although, if the person is not someone who I generally find annoying, I just might go ahead and celebrate their cleverness as they passively requested!

    So really, it's not the PHRASE that is annoying.

    Phrases don't annoy people; people annoy people.

    ReplyDelete

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