The science of puns

Puns are jokes involving ambiguous words. Some are hilarious. Some are only groan-worthy. (If anyone wants to argue the first one isn’t a pun, comment away.)

Wait — aren’t all words ambiguous?
The thing about puns that pops out at me is that pretty much every word is ambigous. My parade-case for an unambiguous word — really a phrase — is George Washington. But, of course, more than one person has been named “George Washington,” so even that one is ambiguous. In any case, the vast majority of words are ambiguous — including the words word and pun.

Most of the time we don’t even notice that a words is ambiguous, because our brains quickly select the contextually-appropriate meaning. For a pun, this selection has to fail in some way, since we remain aware of the multiple appropriate meanings.

Studying puns
As someone who studies how context is used to understand language, this makes puns and other homophones interesting. I’m also currently starting a new EEG experiment looking at the processing of ambiguous words in folks on the autism spectrum. But one question that I’m interested in is why some puns are funnier than others.

As a first step in that work, I need a bunch of puns ranked for how funny they are. There are website out there that have these types of rankings, but they don’t use the sorts of controls that any peer-reviewed journal will demand. So I am running a rank-that-pun “experiment” at GamesWithWords.org called Puntastic! It goes without saying that once I’ve got enough puns rated, I’ll post what I learn here (including what were the funniest and the worst puns). This make take a few months, though, as I’m getting ratings for over 500 puns.

(picture above isn’t just a picture — it’s a t-shirt)

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