Language, that remarkable and singular human ability, invites us to play, and like all play, wordplay may be spontaneous or laborious, freely associating or rule bound, purposeful or inadvertent. Take the pun, for example. Puns now seem so effortful and contrived that they invite groans or a sock in the arm. But two centuries ago, when patient people practiced conversation as a contest and a high art, hearers esteemed puns above all other playful speech.
An authentic example that circulated aboard ship in the Napoleonic era appears in Patrick O’Brien’s nautical novels. His character Stephen Maturin, naval surgeon and naturalist, was nevertheless at sea when it came to seafaring jargon. When he inquired about the nightly “dog watch,” shipmates told Maturin that maritime custom shortened wee hour sentry duty to help insure that sailors stay watchful. Without skipping a beat, Maturin responded, “then the dog watch is cur-tailed.” His tablemates roared.
Slips of the tongue produce puns that turn the joke on the speaker. In front of a large American history survey class, for instance, I once tried to refer to Thomas Jefferson’s last will and testament; instead I said “last will and testicle.” The students doubled over. Facing this classic Freudian slip, what could I do other than pretend that I meant it? Of course Freud famously thought that slips of the tongue like these revealed hidden preoccupations. But modern cognitive psychologists undermine this explanation for the slip. They tell us that tangled phrases are primarily traffic problems resulting from mistakes in selection, retrieval, switching, sequencing, and the like. Slips predictably occur in the second and third syllable. Knowing that accidents like these conspire with comedy may not relieve the embarrassment after a speech error, but it should lighten the perpetrator’s sense of psychopathology. Say “pass the bed and butter” to your enchanting tablemate, and you might mean nothing special by it.