…no, I mean actually ill– pathological…
From Chaucer through Shakespeare to Pynchon, puns have amused, even illuminated. But, as readers will know, too much of a good thing is, well… not so good.
Lest we chastise those who offend, Dan Lewis, of Now I Know fame, reminds us that over-punning is in fact a recognized pathology:
… there are some out there who cannot control themselves. Discussions of livestock result in udder failure. Conversations about geometry always end up going on some sort of tangent. Trips to the bakery are a piece of cake — but camping trips are in tents. These people insist that North Korea is evil (it doesn’t have a Seoul), wonder why Ireland is so small (as its capital is always Dublin), and if you’re Russian, argue that you best not be Stalin.
For these people, puns aren’t just a character trait — they’re a neurological disease called Witzelsucht.
Witzelsucht, as summarized by a team of Taiwanese researchers in a paper (pdf here) published in 2005, is marked by “a tendency to tell inappropriate and poor jokes.” Wikipedia, citing another study, notes that a Witzelsucht patient has an “uncontrollable tendency to pun,” finding the jokes “intensely amusing.” These tendencies are caused by an injury to the person’s brain, specifically in his or her right frontal lobe, often caused by stroke. One neurologist, who told MSNBC that he sees several Witzelsucht-afflicted patients each year, described a particularly “dramatic” case: “[He] appeared to be attracted to my reflex hammer. After I checked his deep tendon reflexes and put my hammer down, he picked up the hammer and started to check my reflexes, while giggling.” The humor, of course, was lost on the doctor — and would be to any outside observer as well.
The Taiwanese study speaks of a 56-year-old stroke victim who punned uncontrollably — using a lot of “witticisms and quips,” as the paper describes. The sheer volume of the jokes also interfered with patient’s physicians’ ability to examine him; as the study notes, the man “was euphoric, outspoken, prankish, and was so talkative that an interruption was usually needed to pull the conversation back to the topic or to complete a test.” But like many with the condition, the man was not responsive to the jokes of others.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Witzelsucht. Io9 notes that some behavioral therapies may be able to blunt the punning, and various medicines may help calm the afflicted down, but in the end, the allure of another pun will certainly prevail.
As we retreat to more refined raillery, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that the first issue of Private Eye was published. A kind of print forerunner of That Was the Week That Was, The Onion, and The Daily Show, the satirical fortnightly remains Britain’s best-selling current affairs magazine.