The Good Word

Please Do Not Chillax

Adjoinages and the death of the American pun.

Illustration by Charile Powell

Illustration by Charile Powell

I am appalled by Bridezillas. I should make it clear that I have never seen an episode of the reality show. I hate Bridezillas for one simple reason: Bride does not rhyme with god. Ergo, Bridezillas is not a functioning pun.

The point is significant because bridezilla appears to be symptomatic of a wider malaise: the death of the American pun, replaced by something grosser, dumber, uglier. Examples abound: Take one of the most read websites in the world, Wikipedia, a “pun” on encyclopedia that shares nothing but its suffix. Or techpreneur, the loathsome fusion of technology and entrepreneur. Likewise mansplain, a coinage popular with Internet feminists that adroitly glosses a man addressing a woman in a condescending fashion (e.g., “Akam mansplains that mansplain is not a functioning pun.”) but is still not a functioning pun. Manscaping, the removal of all or part of male body hair, is better—there is at least assonance between the vowel sounds in man and land—but as a pun it remains perilously borderline.

So if recessionista and fembot are not really puns, what are they? They’re neolexic portmanteaus, in which root words are brutally slammed together with cavalier lack of wit. “Neolexic portmanteau” is a mouthful, so instead we shall choose a simpler handle. Sherry-manteau, catastrounity, misceg-formation, piss-poortmanteau, and poor-man’s-toes all proffer themselves as alternatives, but they are still laborsome. Therefore, I christen these neolexic portmanteaus adjoinages—a functioning portmanteau pun, in case you failed to see, on adjoin and coinage.

Gentle reader, are they not hideous things? If you are not yet convinced, brace yourself now for a tsunami of adjoinages. Stagflation, bootylicious, aeromotional, chillax, f—tard, bardolatry, bicurious, feminazi. All failed puns. There are others too that sit, manscaping-like, in the liminal territory of borderline pundom. Freakonomics works if the more conventional academic discipline is eek-onomics. It fails grimly if you say ek-onomics; vowel length is all.

One erudite friend of mine suggests that the current crisis in American wordplay can be traced back to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s and the subsequent tendency to append any scandal-related noun with the suffix -gate. Before Nixon fell, my friend suggests, “All American puns rhymed perfectly and snappily, as if the whole country were a Cole Porter musical.” While this may not be precisely accurate, it is true that in the United States puns have come in and out of favor over time.

John Pollack, the author of The Pun Also Rises, a book-length exposition on the subject, suggests the 19th century was a gilded age for American wordplay. As evidence he points to Abraham Lincoln’s coinage of “Michigander” for a native of Michigan, Congressman Horace Mann and Sen. Lewis Cass’ punning duel in an 1850 debate on slavery ( “This Ass is very big. Then call him CAss; C’s Roman for 100—a hundred times an Ass”), and frontiersman Davy Crockett’s status as both a celebrated punster and subject of puns (How many ears does Davy Crockett have? Three: A right ear, a left ear, and a wild frontier).

In Pollack’s view the American pun persisted through vaudeville and comedians like the Marx Brothers and George Burns, before falling out of favor after World War II, as falling taboos made previously forbidden topics (e.g., divorce, sex, general dysfunction) legitimate material for a new American humor less reliant on wordplay.

When I spoke with Pollack, he, alarmingly, was unperturbed by the current proliferation of nonfunctioning portmanteau puns; adjoinages worry him not. “Phonetic purity is a lovely thing, but we don’t live in a perfect world,” he told me. Indeed, Pollack believes the American pun is currently enjoying a renaissance, as an irreverent trope for an irreverent age and a method of branding new phenomena or technology in a time drenched with information.

It is certainly true that, despite the proliferation of adjoinages, the functioning pun is not wholly dead in early 21st century America, nor has its production ceased. We cannot ignore mandate for a dinner meeting of men, nor its baser cousins bromance, gaydar, and staycation. Likewise Bennifer merits inclusion, not least because the pitch-perfect Ben/Jen rhyme is so much neater than the Obama/Abomi vowel mismatch in Tea Party favorite Obamanation which, while still just about a functioning pun, borders on honorary adjoinage status.

The final defense of the pun in comparison to the adjoinage can only be made by turning to the very highest example of the former breed. The English language is rich in puns both wondrous and functional, from the lofty (British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens’ timeless riff on Philippians 4:7 in the King James Bible, mouthed in response to questionable seafood: “the piece of cod, which passeth all understanding”) to the base (Dorothy Parker’s “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think”). As the finest functioning portmanteau pun I would choose metrosexual; in its mere 19 years of existence the word has achieved ubiquity on both sides of the Atlantic, probably because it defined a pre-existing trend rather than trying to will a social development into being through verbal fireworks alone. (I’m looking at you, guyliner.) Metrosexual may be outnumbered by today’s flood of adjoinages, but it shows that success does not demand the compromise of principle.  

So we can fight back! We cannot ignore the troublesome evidence of history, which suggests that, over time, ghastly adjoinages can become so embedded in the language that we forget the ugly process of their parturition. (Whence, let us consider, did paratrooper and camcorder come?) Responsibility for the American pun’s dire straits rests with the maker, and in this field, the author is not dead. Any copy editor, cable station line producer, or entertainment magazine photo captioner who opts for an adjoinage in lieu of at least attempting a functioning pun is clearly a creature of crushingly limited personal ambition. Such an intellectual pygmy must be responsible for naming Bridezillas, as opposed to the striding prince among men who, from the same marriage-themed source materials, christened the 2004 romantic musical film Bride and Prejudice. Now that was pun for the books.