No pun intended

Dear readers—Thanks for your patience! It’s been a busy summer for The Diacritics, but we’re ready for another school-year full of language-related fun. Let’s get to it:

I was recently in line at a Comcast customer center, waiting with my dad to return a cable box I no longer needed. This is not a fun experience—I don’t recommend it. But the DMV-esque wait did allow us to have a nice long conversation, something my dad and I don’t always get the chance to do. At one point we were discussing the kinds of law I might eventually be interested in practicing, and I told him I had enjoyed working on some appellate briefs this summer. His response? “Well, that sounds appealing.”

I thought he was making a pun on the fact that I was describing cases that had been appealed to a higher court. He wasn’t, though—he was being unintentionally punny.

Listen closely and you’ll hear unintentional puns all over the place. After hearing my dad’s, I was able to recall a couple of my own. I was once talking to a friend who was at the beach with his family, and I informed him that I hoped his week was going swimmingly. I intended no pun. Another time, I was shaving and realized that my blade was dull. I actually said out loud (to nobody in particular), “This just isn’t going to cut it.” Again, no pun intended.

Other examples I’ve recently heard include visits to cool old churches being the “saving grace” of an otherwise unremarkable trip, and a person’s “only beef” with steakhouses being the size of the portions.

It’s funny when one recognizes an unintentional pun, and it’s amazing how frequently they occur. But there’s actually a good linguistic/psychological explanation for them.

The explanation involves something called “priming,” a simple but robust linguistic phenomenon. As its name suggests, the basic idea behind priming is that exposure to a given stimulus “primes” you to give a similar response to later stimuli. The best explanation for why this occurs is something called “spreading activation.” This is a fancy way of saying that when you’re exposed to a stimulus—it could be a word, a picture, or something else—it activates a particular association or representation in your brain. This representation or association remains at least partially activated for a good while, which means it will be accessed more quickly and easily in response to later stimuli. Because it’s more quickly and easily accessible, you’re more likely actually to come up with it. 

It’s pretty easy to see a connection between priming and unintentional puns. When I said the word “appellate,” my dad’s brain was primed to come up with similar words. When he went to respond, he was looking for the equivalent of “that sounds like an interesting thing to do.” What word of that ilk is the first to come to mind? Appealing.

Similarly when my buddy is at the beach, I’m primed for related words. So when I’m looking for a clever way of telling him to have a good time, what idiom better than “swimmingly”?

The “appealing” and “swimmingly” unintentional puns are actually the result of different kinds of priming. The first is what’s known as “perceptual” priming, in which the actual words are similar in form. So “appellate” would prime “appealing” because the words are almost the same. “Table” would prime “tablet,” or maybe even “tabloid,” under this same reasoning.

The other type of priming is what’s known as “conceptual” or “associative” priming. There, the initial word primes for words with related meanings, or for words that are typically associated with the initial word. When I was talking to my friend about his beach trip, I was primed to find the word “swim.” Or “table” might prime a person to find the word “chair.”

So take heart—it turns out there’s a good reason the phrase “no pun intended” came into being. And don’t miss a beat next time you hear one, as there’s a good chance it wasn’t.