William Shakespeare and Walter Cronkite

William Shakespeare and Walter Cronkite

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is a share from our friends at The Poynter Institute, with gratitude.

By Roy Peter Clark

All good writers play with words, even when they write about grave matters. The device that makes such word play the most visible is the pun.

My first sentence contains an allusion to a famous poem by Dylan Thomas. In “Do not go gentle into that good night,” he begs his dying father to rebel against his mortality. Along the way, the poet refers to “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight.”

Given the gravity of the poem, “grave” is not a double-entendre that makes me laugh, or even smile, but it touches me in a hopeful way.

Whoever first said that the pun was the lowest form of humor had never watched the farting scene around the campfire in the Mel Brooks movie “Blazing Saddles.”

Poynter Institute senior scholar and writing coach Roy Peter Clark

Roy Peter Clark

I am old enough to remember watching Abbott and Costello on television, the boys reprising comic sketches that could be traced back to burlesque and vaudeville. How sweet the outrage of Lou when Bud tries to explain a sure winner at the racetrack. The horse was a “mudder” who always eats his “fodder.” Lou, of course, hears “mother” and “father,” and sees the whole business as equine cannibalism.

As I type that scene out, I am laughing again.

Low-brow humor or clever creativity?

But let’s climb the cultural ladder to what I feel is the greatest word play of all time. The writer? Shakespeare, of course. (I am happy to serve as his hype man, as if he needed one.)

The word play comes from the lips of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. It is not clear whether the multiple meanings are intended in the context of the action of the play, but they are clearly available to an audience of readers.

Early in the play, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, who shares with his son the unthinkable: That he was murdered by his brother, who now sits on the throne and beds Hamlet’s mother.  Murder, fratricide, regicide, incest; Freud could have a field day with this story – and did.

The key moment occurs in Act I, Scene V. After the ghost’s recitation of the horrible crimes of his brother, his final words to Hamlet are “Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.”

To which Hamlet responds: “Remember thee! / Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat/ In this distracted globe.”

I get chills re-reading that line, a stimulant for the brain as strong as the most sophisticated puzzle. Four words collide with multiple meanings: memory, seat, distracted, globe.

  1. The actor may point to his head, the round globe, and the seat of all memories – including his memorized lines. Hamlet is distracted by the experience of so many crimes and his confusion about what he must do next.
  2. The Globe is the name of the theater. The groundlings near the stage may be standing, but there are plenty of seats where the audience can be entertained to distraction from the real world.
  3. The globe is the entire world.  “All the world’s a stage,” is the first line of a famous soliloquy in “As You Like It,” an invitation to consider the many roles we play as human beings in our lifetime. But, in the medieval tradition of theater, the stage was often constructed to represent all the world and beyond. The higher stage could represent the heavens, the lower stage an entrance to hell, often full of comic devils. In between, where most of the action occurred, was Middle Earth.

A career launched by word play

If I have just described the greatest pun of all time, I am about to reveal the second.  It was written by me and — no kidding — it launched my career.

It was 50 years ago this August when I received my Ph.D. in English from Stony Brook University on Long Island.  I typed out 100 job letters, got four interviews and one offer. It came from a school I had never heard of, AUM, a branch campus of Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama.

It was a bit of a culture shock driving our old Mustang from New York to Alabama, but it allowed me to achieve escape velocity from the parochialism of the city so great they had to name it twice: New York, New York.

As a New York Yankee fan, I was used to hearing the mellifluous voices of those famous game announcers, Mel Allen and Red Barber. Their Southern lyricism made the games more relaxed and more exciting at the same time.

But when I turned on the local television news in Alabama, I was surprised that all the news anchors and reporters sounded as if they were from Middle America. It was OK for the weather men and women and for the sports guys to speak in a Southern dialect, but not the “serious” voices.

I came to look at this trend as a form of language prejudice, a self-loathing that affects folks of all classes and races in the region. It was as if they were saying to the audience: don’t worry, friends, we ain’t gonna make you listen to no rednecks or hillbillies.

I began to study dialect and, with the help of a local newspaper editor, Ray Jenkins, wrote a column. I remember writing it as if it were yesterday. I can see myself sitting on a blue metal chair at a makeshift desk in our little rented apartment. I was almost done but with a strong feeling that I was missing the most important element. In what I now think of as a “conceptual scoop,” I had to give this tendency, this malaise, this syndrome a name.

“It’s like a disease,” I thought. Immediately my mind traveled back to my college days where a particular teacher bore the unfortunate nickname “The Disease.” That’s because his real last name was Jurgalitis.

Now I am staring up into space, my brain clicking a verbal inventory:

Jurgalitis, Appendicitis, Tonsilitis, Bronchitis….It appeared as if written by an unseen hand on the wall above my desk: Cronkitis. The illness of wanting to sound like the great Walter Cronkite.

Before long, the story appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times, with the title “Infectious Cronkitis.” It was reprinted around the country. It got me an interview on the Today show, after which the great Barbara Walters huffed her disagreement with this kid who wore a leisure suit and flowered shirt more appropriate for a disco.

Layered language

During my three years in Montgomery, I published several newspaper articles, including two more op-ed pieces in the Times.

On a visit back to New York, I stopped at The Times and was greeted by the two opinion editors who had accepted my stuff. Charlotte Curtis was quite interested in my journey, physical and cultural, from North to South, especially at a time when Jimmy Carter was about to be elected president.

Howard Goldberg, an elegant man who would become an influential writer about wine, was focused on my first offering. “It was a good column,” he said, “but a great title. Cronkitis. A pun in two languages!”

A pun in two languages. I was speechless. Fortunately, he turned to Charlotte and explained that the word ‘krankheit’ was the German and Yiddish word for disease. He knew that back in days of vaudeville, the comic doctor would always be a quack introduced as “Dr. Krankheit.”

Doctor Disease.

I learned a lot from that moment. I learned that creativity is its own reward, and that the Muses can deliver more than you asked for. But you still have to ask.

If you are a writer — or any human being — feel free to take credit for things that you did not intend, because — you already know this — you will be blamed countless times for things you did not intend.

That pun got me invited to spend a year at the St. Petersburg Times working as a writing coach, a year that has turned into 47 years, during which I have written or edited 20 books, in which you can find the occasional pun.

But I swear, as long as memory holds a seat in this distracted globe, I will continue to take credit for the second greatest pun in the history of the English language.

Three tips for punsters

  1. Avoid the obvious, what I call “first level-creativity.” You know, the headline that says: “This movie is for the birds.” You are better off writing it straight.
  2. Keep a file where you save interesting phrases and aphorisms. You don’t need to steal them because you can quote them, as when Oscar Wilde opined that “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”
  3. Avoid most cliches (you are allowed one now and then), but you can often get something fresh by tweaking a familiar phrase. Dorothy Parker was especially good at this: “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone”; or “One more drink and I’ll be under the host” (not the table! My mom often quotes her here: “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” to which I respond, with respect: “Girls seldom take passes from men who pass gasses.”

    * * *
    Roy Peter Clark teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida, and is the author of best-selling books on writing. His latest, now in paperback, is “Tell It Like It Is: A Guide to Clear and Honest Writing,” published by Little, Brown.

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