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The Science Behind Puns

Puns are a sign of intelligence, brain damage, or being a computer. Pick one.

flickr / Becky

Not all dad jokes are puns, but most groan-worthy wordplay qualifies as a bad dad joke. And while punny dad humor may seem like low-hanging fruit, the a rich science behind how they work should not be punderestimated (ugh, sorry). So the next time your family tries to tell you that dad jokes are dumb—first of all, agree. But then drop the following fun facts on them. Because the only thing more obnoxious than wordplay at the dinner table is a bonafide lecture on the science of puns:

human brain illustration

Puns Require The Use Of Both Sides Of Your Brain

While it may seem like punny people aren’t using their brains at all, it actually takes both right and left hemispheres of the brain to tell a joke, research suggests. The left side, or the linguistic hemisphere, processes the basic language of the pun, and then the right side kicks in right after to reveal the surprise double meaning—the punchline.

Computers Can Pun With The Best

Machine learning technology has enabled computers to join the pun game for some time now. In 2011, scientists from the University of Washington wrote a program that could add “that’s what she said” to appropriate sentences with 72 percent accuracy. One winning example: “Don’t you think these buns are a little too big for this meat?”… “That’s what she said.”

Another comparably crass study from the University of Edinburgh showed that a computer can be programmed to riff off the basic model of “I like my women (or men) like I like my coffee.” Some results were more problematic than others, such as “I like my men like I like my court … superior,” and “I like my women like I like my … camera … ready to flash.” (Come on, computers). But it’s not all blush-worthy humor. Another software program called STANDUP uses computerized puns to help children with non-verbal cerebral palsy practice communication and socializing skills. Almost makes up for it.

Puns Can Be A Sign Of Intelligence…

Sounds unlikely, we know. But a 2011 study in the journal Intelligence found a correlation between participants’ sense of humor and an indicator of mental and mating aptitude. As John Pollack, author of The Pun Also Rises, explains, puns are an indication that you have the intelligence to use words economically. “For most of Western history, puns were a sign of high intellect,” he told The Atlantic. “They were a tool, and they remain a tool, to pack more meaning into fewer words.”

…When They’re Not A Sign Of Brain Damage

For every ten embarrassing dads who demand to know whether you can go to the bathroom or not, there’s one who is punning due to a frontal lobe injury. In a 2016 study, researchers followed two patients with Witzelsucht, a neuropsychiatric disease that compels people to make puns. One of the subjects reported that it was ruining his marriage, because he couldn’t stop telling groan-worthy jokes to his wife in the middle of the night. Examples of jokes spurred by the brain disease varied from standard fare such as, “How do you cure hunger? Step away from the buffet table,” to indecipherable nonsense, such as “Went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get my driver’s license. They gave me an eye exam and here is what they said: ABCDEFG, HIJKMNLOP, QRS, TUV, WXY and Z; now I know my ABC’s, can I have my licenseplease?”.

spoonbill illustration

Hate Puns? That’s Science, Too

It’s unclear why your family hates even your best material, but some researchers suggest it’s because your puns waste precious time. There’s a conversation going on here, and you keep interrupting the flow of discussion with groan-worthy one-liners. “A pun sidetracks you,” Charlie Hopper writes in McSweeney’s article about why people hate puns. “It’s your friend who won’t let you get anything done.” Another theory, put forth by Pollack in his book is that people who don’t like puns have controlling personalities.“If you have an approach to the world that is rules-based, driven by hierarchy and threatened by irreverence, then you’re not going to like puns,” he writes.

In other words, haters gonna hate. Just remember: it’s not you, it’s them. Oh—and get that frontal lobe checked out.