Thursday, 15 October 2009

In Praise of Punning Dads - John Dougherty

Did you have a Punning Dad when you were a kid? I did. Still do, as a matter of fact. No pun is too poor, no wordplay too weak, no flippancy too feeble; if there’s a double meaning to be found, my dad will dig it out.

Of course, when you’re little, you don’t mind. In fact, it’s rather nice to know you can rely on your father to say something silly several times a day. Small children relish it, and it gets you extra points with your friends - especially the friends with Serious Dads.

But when you get older... well, it’s just embarrassing, isn’t it? You don’t know why; it just is. Even when nobody else is around. And, of course, you don’t realise that every other boy your age is now embarrassed by his dad. All you know is that your dad keeps making jokes that were funny when you were four but aren’t funny now. So it was with me; and so my dad spent the best part of a decade suffering enormous amounts of teenage eye-rolling and dramatic sighing as an accompaniment to every pun. But did it stop him? Did it heck.

And to be fair, even now that I’m forty-five (can I really be forty-five? Twenty-seven seems like only a few minutes ago!) a lot of my dad’s puns meet with a vestigial eye-roll and a bit of a groan. But today - for reasons that will become clear - seems like an appropriate day to reappraise the role of a Punning Dad in the life of a developing writer; or, at least, in the life of this developing writer.

You see, without my Punning Dad I wouldn’t have become a writer of comic fiction for children. In fact, I wouldn’t have become a writer at all.

What you don’t appreciate, when you’re growing up with a Punning Dad, is that knowing almost anything you say might be punned upon gives you an awareness of language that other kids don’t have. You become alert to the meanings of words, and to their possible reinterpretation; you become conscious that what you mean to say might not be what is heard by the hearer or read by the reader. You develop a growing understanding of the subtleties of language; of its shades and tones and twists and tricks. You grow to recognise its strengths and limitations, and to love it for what it can do. And all this happens without anyone sitting you down in a classroom, or writing on a blackboard, or reading from a textbook. All this happens because you have a dad who loves language, and who passes on that love to you, with love, in a way that a four-year-old can understand - by being silly and making you laugh.

My dad taught me to love language in many other ways, too; but it’s the punning that sticks in my head. And now he’s a Punning Grandad (or, since he lives in France, a Punning Pépé); and I in my turn have become a Punning Dad; and my children - still a few years away, I hope, from the eye-rolling and sighing and “Daaa-ad!”s - are learning in their turn to play with this marvellous toy, the English language, and to love its shades and tones and twists and tricks.

So: happy 80th birthday, Dad, with all my love. Thanks for all the puns - even the really bad ones - and thanks for the much greater gift they held, wrapped up in secret inside them.

John’s website is at

His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom (Young Corgi 2009; ISBN


Penny said...

John, I just loved this post and was wiping sentimental tears from my eyes as I read it. Important thing first: Happy Birthday, Punning Grandad!!!

Language wise, you are so right! It does teach one to play with words, to watch out for slippery meanings, to learn to think twice, to listen to the sound and rhythm of words. Punning was the main form of humour in our house - maybe the only acceptable form? - partly nurtured by speech radio.

I'd never thought of this before, so thank you for reminding me of that time - and from one so very young! Thanks, Punning Dad!

Charlie Butler said...

I must plead guilty to punning too, John, but punning dads are in excellent company. Johnson wasn't praising Shakespeare here, but I suspect him of reluctant admiration:

"A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it."

Anonymous said...

I'm that embarrassing punning mother in these parts. Youngest child groans regularly, but I say it's been programmed into us to behave like this at a certain stage in life.

And English is so much more useful for punning! Though I do have some dreadful punning cousins, who take after their father. So it IS possible to pun in Swedish.

Nick Green said...

Ah yes, Shakespeare and his quibbles. This was his finest hour:

Miller: Is it all botched up, then, Master Puke?

Bennett: Aye, marry it is, good Master Snot.

Moore: 'Tis said our Master, the Duke, hath contrived some naughtiness against his son, the King.

Cook: Aye, and it doth confound our merrymaking.

Miller: What say you, Master Puke? I am for Lancaster, and that's to say for good shoe leather.

Cook: Come speak, good Master Puke, or hath the leather blocked up thy tongue?

Moore: Why then go trippingly upon thy laces, good Grit.

Cook: Art leather laces thy undoing?

Moore: They shall undo many a fair boot this day.

(From Beyond the Fringe, of course. 'So That's The Way You Like It').

I too have, and am, a Punning Dad. And I have punning duels with my stepdad.

steeleweed said...

You were lucky your father enjoyed language and passed it on to you. I also recommend reading a lot of poetry as a way to promote greater faculty of language. Hearing a thought expressed by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot and anonymous Irishmen reveals nuances of English that cannot be gained any better way.
Happy punning to you all - and when your kids reach the eye-rolling age, just crank it up a notch. :-)

fionadunbar said...

Totally agree with Penny; lovely post. Happy birthday, Punning Grandad!

And Ann – you got there before me; I too am a Punning Mum Extraordinaire. In my case I owe it to my own grandad, who I remember with great affection and dedicate a little patch of my website to. Some of his jokes were AWFUL: I remember one that was something to do with the beginning of marmelade, and a chicken saying, "ma, me laid an egg!' Extremely feeble. But I still remember it. And I use wordplay constantly in my writing; for example there's an alcoholic nurse in my Silk Sisters books called Pat Dry; that came from all the recipes I'd read that included this instruction. I'm sure they're very groanworthy – but, I like to think, possbily memorable.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Is Punning Dad senior up for adoption? Or can I be adopted by him? My father's puns were also 'eye-rolled' when I was 16 but you've reminded me how special they were. A shame that he died when I was 22 and never got around to telling him how much his love of words affected me. I think he'd find it amusing that I write! At least your dad knows how much he's meant in your life. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Punning Dad!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

PS meant to say John what a magical photograph that is with you and your children reading... those intent expressions!

Phil Woods & Steve Smith said...

It's great when language is passed on like that through family life. I too find myself punning - sometimes a little too much for my own liking - and can tell where I get it from.

I also love a laugh about the things we all say in everyday life that only become funny when you stop and think about them, and a friend and I have written a book about them: 'Beat About The Bush: The Funny Side of Language'.

I'm now getting back the groans I gave out a few years ago!

AnneR said...

A lovely post, John - thank you. And happy birthday to your dad :-)

Katherine Langrish said...

Great post!

David said...

Wonderful post. In this light the pun truly becomes mightier than the words.