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Humorists say every pun is its own re-word

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Lloyd Dissmore of Kenosha, Wisconsin ranked 3rd at the 2006 O. Henry Pun-Off. (Courtesy of Brian Oakley)

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The O. Henry Pun-Off is held in Austin, Texas each May. (Courtesy of Brian Oakley)

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In the "High-Lies & Low-Puns" competition, punsters battle head-to-head under strict time limits. (Courtesy of Brian Oakley)

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At the 2006 O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin, Texas, a crowd of hundreds gathered to watch the battle for word domination. (Courtesy of Brian Oakley)

Word lovers say a good pun is like a good steak: a rare medium well done. Get it? If you don’t, you’re not alone.

When it comes to puns, not everyone is laughing. Puns--words or phrases deliberately confused for rhetorical effect--may be an endangered species, as changes in comedy have writers panning puns.

“Puns worked when most humor was written,” said Andrew Smith, a comedy writer who used to write for "Saturday Night Live." “Puns have gone out of favor because they work for the page, not for the stage.”

United by their love of language, however, punsters across the continent are banding together to protect and promote the pun. They hope punny Web sites and competitive pun-offs will trigger a pun comeback, or, better yet, a pun-back.

Each May, hundreds gather on the lawn of the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas, for a pun-ishing contest in which 32 pun-slingers face off in a battle for word domination. There are two categories: “Punniest of Show,” where contestants perform 90 seconds of freestyle punnery, and “High-lies & Low-puns,” a head-to-head battle of wits.

At the 2002 pun-off, immortalized in the documentary “Pun-smoke,” the audience was treated to two punsters and their pirate-themed performance.

“Hey, nice earrings, how much did you pay for them?” asked one.

“About a buccaneer!” the other replied.

Groans ensued. “The audience comes back every year because they are annual retentive,” joked the emcee, Gary Hallock. “Sometimes we need to enroll them in a witless protection program after the event.”

Puns treat homonyms as synonyms, allowing punsters to pack two or more meanings into a single phrase. To wit: How about that Trojan War? It was Helen earth. The depraved poet? Paid perverse.

Puns, like contraceptives, can be labor-saving devices. The challenge of punning is to apply the greatest pressure per square syllable of language.

“You get the thrill of packing more meaning in less space,” said Richard Lederer, author of "Get Thee to a Punnery" and "Anguished English." Lederer’s nephew once asked for a slogan suggestion for his San Antonio legal firm, which specializes in divorce cases. “Remember the Alimony!” Lederer shot back.

The pun, also known as paronomasia, has serious literary pedigree. Homer’s "The Odyssey" contains one of the earliest literary puns. In the epic, Odysseus identifies himself as “Nobody” when he’s captured by a one-eyed giant. Later, when Odysseus puts out the giant’s eye, the giant cries for help, yelling, “Nobody is killing me!”

Shakespeare’s plays are riddled with puns, so much so that academics have written tomes on the subject. There’s even a 372-page dictionary featuring the playwright’s sexual puns. (Sorry, no examples can be provided.)

Famous punsters include Oscar Wilde, whose best-known play, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is packed with puns, including its title. Funnyman Groucho Marx was famous for them (“Time wounds all heels,” goes one) as was the author Dorothy Parker, who dazzled her fellows at the Algonquin Round Table with such bon mots as “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

For all their cleverness, puns have long been ridiculed. The English dramatist John Dennis proclaimed more than 300 years ago that the pun is the “lowest form of wit.” Changes in comedy and media haven’t helped.

“Professional comedy writers don’t like the pun because you can’t perform it,” said Smith, the comedy writer. “It will stop the show--with a groan.”

Actually, groaning is considered high praise for a pun. “People moan and groan,” said Norman Gilbert of the International Save the Pun Foundation. “But I think the bigger the groan, the better the pun!”

As chairman of the bored for the Toronto-based pun group, Gilbert sifts through about 75 puns submitted by members each day. Although membership is down since the 1990s, when the group had about 1,000 punsters, Save the Pun now has 300 members and is adding about a dozen each month.

The Web site pungents.com is one of dozens catering to would-be pundits. “Our goal is to raise the status of puns,” said Pat Tanzola, 28, co-founder of the sire. “We’re showing that cool and sexy people love puns too.”

Tanzola and fellow co-founder Rhain Louis, also 28, founded their Web site in December 2004 when they realized their shared love for puns vastly outstripped their love for school. Forsaking graduate study in zoology (Louis) and urban planning (Tanzola), they opted out of academia, got day jobs and devoted themselves to puns.

Today, their site is a veritable barrel of pun. There are pun-liners (eating wheat is a sin: gluteny) and a searchable pun archive. One entry: Should you age your wine in a wooden coffin? Yes, it's better to casket. Use it if you’re in die-er need of a cemetery pun.

The pun gents also have a custom joke service offering puns on demand. One woman requested a pun on the death of Santa: “He was taken by Satan's claws," replied the gents. “In France they’re calling him Pere no-more.”

Punny or not, word of the pun’s death seems greatly exaggerated. As the columnist William Safire once wrote: “There’s no more chance of stamping out paronomasia than there is a likelihood of finding a cure for the common scold.”

E-mail: ear2126@columbia.edu