Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Puns and Meaning Making

One of the common interests my father and I shared was an appreciation of puns. To my family’s annoyance, I’ve maintained that interest over the years. Such a set of interests, means that some amount of my thought processes are always taken up by scanning for possible pun opportunities. Like a computer’s security scanner, I’m constantly searching. During class last week, I stumbled on a not particularly clever (are any that clever?) pun while also discussing one of Charles Sanders Peirce’s sign trichotomies. This coincidence provided the opportunity for another quick, high-falutin’ blog post on mundane social interaction and meaning making.


As I was reviewing the class roster prior to the beginning of the session, I was struck by the name Molly, with all of it’s Irish connotations. However, that morning, I’d also heard an update on the political/military situation in the west African nation, Mali. Symbolically and conceptually, these words aren’t in the same orbit. But, at a formal, phonetic level, they’re identical. Hey, those two words are homonyms! I had the opportunity to make a bad joke! I didn’t, but it got me thinking about the basis of the connection.

Using Peirce’s terms, Molly and Mali are icons. The connection is based on formal resemblance. However, most people miss the connection because the terms are typically embedded in very different symbolic systems (i.e. they usually point to, or index, a very different set of other symbols). As a species, humans perceive their world through these symbolic lenses, to the point that we cease forging the simpler, iconic representations. Puns provide an iconic bridge, linking two contrasting frames of reference that humor is often based.

I was also reminded of the tests on short-term memory that suggest chimpanzees perform better than humans...perhaps because chimpanzees are not, or less, embedded in complex symbolic webs that distract from actual sensory input from the material world? I don’t know, but I do have to find a way to make this joke.

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