John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


The Pun Under Attack in China

Posted on December 10, 2014
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According to Wikipedia:
The pun, also called paronomasia, is a form of word play that suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use of homophonic, homographic, metonymic, or metaphorical language. A pun differs from a malapropism in that a malapropism uses an incorrect expression that alludes to another (usually correct) expression, but a pun uses a correct expression that alludes to another (sometimes correct but more often absurdly humorous) expression. Henri Bergson defined a pun as a sentence or utterance in which "the same sentence appears to offer two independent meanings, but it is only an appearance; in reality there are two different sentences made up of different words, but claiming to be one and the same because both have the same sound". Puns may be regarded as in-jokes or idiomatic constructions, given that their usage and meaning are entirely local to a particular language and its culture. For example, "Camping is intense." (in tents)

I mention the pun because the Government of China has decided to sharply regulate its use.

The LA Times reports:
China’s media regulators have put out a new edict to copywriters, directing them to keep their groaners to themselves.

It’s no laughing matter – the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued an order restricting puns and irregular wordplay on television and in advertising.

The order, listed on the media regulator’s website late last week, says that puns could mislead young readers and make it more difficult to promote traditional Chinese culture.

Puns are ubiquitous in Chinese, which has countless homophones. Substituting one character for another can easily change the meaning of a phrase while barely altering the sound.

I have a theory.  A country that can’t abide by the pun will die by the pun.

We have a First Amendment in this country, which theoretically is supposed to protect the people’s rights to say anything they want (except you can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded movie theater).

Indeed the Bill of Rights specifically says this, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Of course, we abridge the freedom of speech in this country all the time.

In China, you can’t freely pun.  In America, you can say wtf on broadcast television, but you can’t say what the fuck.

The FCC, created by the Congress, sharply regulates what you can and can’t say on over-the-air broadcasting.  The theory goes that because the public owns the public airways, that the government has the right to sharply limit what the public can and can’t say on those same airwaves.

The Congress has no such authority to regulate what is said on pay channels, so Bill Maher can say fuck any time he wants.

Beyond the F word, some elements of the American people are none too comfortable using other words.

The “N” is a bad word, although, strictly speaking it is not a swear word.

But the N word is so bad, that some people want to ban the use of the word “niggardly.”   This is what Wikipedia says about that word:
“"Niggardly" (noun: "niggard") is an adjective meaning "stingy" or "miserly", perhaps related to the Old Norse verb nigla = "to fuss about small matters". It is cognate with "niggling", meaning "petty" or "unimportant", as in "the niggling details".

Niggardly has nothing to do in its origins, but because it sounds like the “N” word, it gets tarnished with all of its negative implications.

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour stepped in it when he used the phrase “tar baby.”    Once again, according to Wikipedia:
The Tar-Baby is a fictional character in the second of the Uncle Remus stories published in 1881; it is a doll made of tar and turpentine used to entrap Br'er Rabbit. The more that Br'er Rabbit fights the Tar-Baby, the more entangled he becomes.

In modern usage, "tar baby" refers to any "sticky situation" that is only aggravated by additional contact.

Barbour was accused of being a racist because he used this popular idiom to convey, correctly, a sticky situation for Congressional Republicans.

For using the term correctly, Barbour was roundly attacked.

Such is the state of American discourse.

You are accused of being a racist when you correctly use the word niggardly and you correctly use the word Tar-Baby.

Well, at least, it’s not the government doing it.

A government employee (actually a Congressional employee) was fired for saying something negative about the President’s daughters.

The political heat was put on her from social media because of her words that really didn’t hurt anybody.  But for that she paid the price.

We don’t use the government to crack down on Free Speech.  We use Twitter.

Sometime I wonder what is more effective.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” Voltaire is misquoted as saying, which is just as well, because nobody believes it anymore anyway.

The best that you can hope for these days is that if the left first attacks you for saying something that offends them, that the right will rush to your defense.

We may want to make fun of the Chinese for regulating puns, but we are in no mood to allow people to say what they really believe.

It’s all pun until somebody loses an idiom.