Henry David Thoreau
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Results of the First and Second
Annual Thoreau Pun Survey

Old favorites and new discoveries

Scientifically conducted by Randall Conrad
Director of the Thoreau Project at Calliope

Readers were invited to submit their favorite wordplay by Thoreau, minor or major, with or without comment.

My interns sorted the deluge of replies into ten categories. In each one, we chose the top entries. The first thing I did was to submit the top ten to the humor contest in my community weekly, the Plains Tribune, figuring at least one of them could win the prize.

Body Language

"The standing army is only an arm of the standing government." ("Civil Disobedience," first paragraph).

Contributor Suzanne Tureter comments, "All those standing (foot?) soldiers turn into a single arm as Thoreau zooms out to a bigger picture, I glimpse the full extent of the Body Politic here - and it's male. Consider the manly profile of expansionist warfare in Thoreau's further allusion to the Mexican War a few lines later - our politicians have been 'using the standing government as their tool.'"

Special Category: Possible Puns

"His [Joe Polis's] common word was 'Sartain.'" [The Maine Woods, Princeton ed., p. 107]

François Specq, author of Transcendence and French translator of The Maine Woods, queries as follows, à propos of the foregoing sentence in the "Chesuncook" essay:

"I take 'Sartain' to be a mispronunciation of 'certain.' But, though Thoreau published 'Chesuncook' in the Atlantic Monthly, could there be an allusion to Sartain's Magazine, in which he had published 'Ktaadn'?"

Nice point, François. Thoreau sartainly didn't have to look very far for a distorted spelling to represent Joe's accent. And he must have savored the homonymity later on, during his famous quarrel with Atlantic editor James Russell Lowell over Lowell's high-handed handling of "Chesuncook."

P.S. And what about Joe POLIS, of all surnames? We'll bet Thoreau enjoyed the similarity with polis, the Grecian city-state and prototype of democratic civilization (in Latin, civis). Whether or not Thoreau chose "Polis" from among the several ways to spell Joe's name (also seen as Polus and Porus), he must have relished the irony, since he perceived in his Penobscot guide those civilized virtues long relinquished by most Anglo-Americans.

Favorite Folk Etymology

From Chungbuk National University in Cheongju, Korea, YOO Inho, the Director of the English Education Department, writes that his most fun pun, in "Walking," is Thoreau's derivation of saunterer from either "Sainte-Terrer," a seeker of the Sainte Terre or Holy Land, or else sans terre, without land, hence "equally at home everywhere." (For the record, pedestrian etymologists lean toward Middle English santren, to muse.)

Prof. Yoo adds that - for him, at least - there's one more thing about 'saunterer': The pronunciation is absolutely similar to the Korean word meaning "shake [a job] off your hands" (saun = hand, and terer = a form of ter-da = "to dust off, to empty, to rob, to strip).

"If only the word saunterer is spoken, it's an imperative form, a command: 'Finish with that!' 'Wash your hands of it!' 'Knock it off!' Try it out on the next Korean you meet (but don't forget to add -yo at the end, to make your request less rude). So when I am sauntering, the word is triply rich to me. Besides the English and French derivations, I feel that I am walking after getting things off my hands."

Professor Yoo is the Korean translator of Uncommon Learning: Thoreau on Education and other Thoreau works.

Puns You Get When You Hear Them Spoken, But
...You Might Not Notice Them In Print

This from Richard J. Schneider, former editor of The Concord Saunterer.
"My favorite - one that Walt Harding always enjoyed also - is the one that most people miss in the second paragraph of 'The Ponds' in Walden: An unlucky fisherman who has caught nothing since morning finally concludes that 'he belonged to the ancient sect of Coenobites.'"

Hint: soft "c," and pronounce the diphthong as "ee."

Puns You Get When You See Them In Print, But
...They Don't Come Across When Spoken

"Really, there is no infidelity, now-a-days, so great as that which prays, and keeps the Sabbath, and rebuilds the churches… One is sick at heart of this pagoda worship." (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, "Sunday," paragraph 42.)

Penny Medrasco of New Bedford, Mass., says that after staring at this passage a while, she found the pun by underlining just three consecutive letters.

While We're On The Subject

Raymond Tripp, the author of a wonderful Walden commentary called Two Fish on One Hook (1998), found a gem in Walden:

"I'm sure someone has hit upon agri-culture, i.e., 'agree-culture,' as a takeoff on Christianity as something of an institutional conspiracy, etc."
["Economy," 56. Both the italics and the hyphen are Thoreau's.]

We can't agri, Ray - you may be the first. Nobody else in this year's survey submitted it, and although practically all checklists and annotators include this dissected polysyllable, no one but you has explained why Thoreau both hyphenated the word and italicized the first part.

Puns Created By The Mere Addition Of An Intensifying Prefix

Rainier Cox of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, thinks that "What Befell at Mrs. Brooks's" is a slick title for Thoreau's slapstick narrative of one person after another losing their footing in puddles, in his journal for 19 March 1856 (VIII, 212). (By the way, that's the same Mrs. Brooks that Sandra Petrulionis profiled in the winter 1999 Thoreau Society Bulletin.)

Look for this out-of-print tale in a library - it's funny for reading and acting out, and for wondering what "opodeldoc" is. Or just download it now:
Download PDF



"Furniture! … Pray, for what do we move ever but to get rid of our furniture, our exuviae; at last to go from this world to another newly furnished, and leave this to be burned? It is the same as if all these traps were buckled to a man's belt, and he could not move over the rough country where our lines are cast without dragging them,-- dragging his trap. He was a lucky fox that left his tail in the trap." ("Economy," 88)

Debra Kang Dean has pointed out that this wordplay in Walden involves two homonyms: trap(s) (possibly derived from Old French drap, cloth) and trap (from Middle English træppe). "Thoreau refers to personal inheritance and property first as fetters and baggage, then as traps, until at length the denotative (though less familiar) meaning of the word traps - personal belongings - acquires the connotations of its more familiar homonym."

Ms. Dean is the award-winning author of three collections of poetry, including Precipitates (2003).


Métaphore filée

"If he had had any journal advocating 'his cause,' any organ, as the phrase is, monotonously and wearisomely playing the same old tune, and then passing round the hat, it would have been fatal to his efficiency." ("A Plea for Captain John Brown," 56.).

Samuel Lachise of Québec City remarks that Thoreau is playing one organ in two registers. As the word shifts from instrument of communication to the concrete meaning of church-organ, why, there we are, seated in the pew, solicited for our offering and listening to the instrument's (and preacher's) insufferable wheeze.

Something About Politicians

"At Passadumkeag we found anything but what the name implies,-- earnest politicians, to wit… men who talked rapidly… endeavoring to say much in little… but always saying little in much." (The Maine Woods, Princeton ed., p. 8.)

Kerry "Kix" Labrescia of Minneapolis sent in the above favorite, a few pages into "Ktaadn," followed by this comment:
"The politician as a keg seems to have an honorable precedent in American campaign mud-slinging. When John Hancock stood for governor of Massachusetts in 1787, opponents derided him as 'the empty barrel.'"

An Expert Opines

We dared to ask Michael West, author of Transcendental Wordplay (Ohio UP, 2000) to share his favorite.

Though he found the "challenge too painful, or punfull," Prof. West submitted the following from his book, explicating a short passage drawn almost at random from the Journal that he believes illustrates one function of Thoreau's double entendres.

" 'When I criticize my own writing I go by the scent,' Thoreau claimed (8 May 1852). 'By it I detect earthiness.' Puns are, appropriately, pungent. Far from being merely clever, Thoreau's wordplay often provides the earthiness that anchors a more ethereal insight. Here is the Journal entry:

For years my appetite was so strong that I fed - I browsed - on the pine forest's edge seen against the winter horizon. How cheap my diet still! Dry sand that has fallen in railroad cuts and slid on the snow beneath is condiment to my walk. I ranged about like a gray moose, looking at the spiring tops of the trees, and fed my imagination on them, - far-away, ideal trees, not disturbed by the axe of the woodcutter, nearer and nearer fringes and eyelashes of my eye. Where was the sap, the fruit, the value of the forest for me, but in that line where it was relieved against the sky? That was my wood-lot; that was my lot in the woods. The silvery needles of the pine straining the light.
(3 December 1856).

"What an aesthete this Yankee was! His strong appetite was actually the finicky taste of a sensory epicure. He has affinities with the American luminists and other such painters. Here he ranges the woods less like a moose than like James McNeill Whistler, composing monochromatic landscapes by squinting experimentally. With a Japanese delicacy, the pines are brushed in as a line against the sky. As their tops blur into ideal trees and into his eyelashes, we may well wonder "where was the sap … of the forest." The passage risks over-refinement, as it risks a certain woodsman-spare-that-tree sentimentality.

"What pulls it back from both is the penultimate sentence. Its marvelous pun emphasizes that binocular vision keeps this observer from being imprisoned by his carefully cultivated perspectives. The joke is not only ingenious but earthier than anything else in the passage. The aesthete who strains his light through pine needles is the same homely soul who enjoys a cheap diet. Yes - this man saw a lot in the woods."

Celestial Mechanics

When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion - or, rather, like a comet, ... since its orbit does not look like a returning curve ..., it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. (Walden, "Sounds," paragraph 8)

Many have commented on the tone, sense, and context of Thoreau's mythologizing of the train in Walden - duly noting its allusion to Hawthorne's "Celestial Railroad," etc. - but few besides Malcolm Ferguson of Concord realize that the engine's "planetary motion" originates in physics.

Ferguson writes that this is his favorite pun. '' Planetary motion is where the engine's steam-powered battering ram piston's thrust is translated into a rotational or planetary motion to impel the train's wheels to Boston or throughout the earth's orbit." (Concord Journal, June 29, 2000).

There Was a Sprite
Named Amphitrite

Randi Claybrough of Gardner, Mass., finds a "sprung pun" in The Maine Woods:

"There was another steamer, named Amphitrite, laid up close by; but, apparently, her name was not more trite than her hull." (Princeton edition, p. 94)

Amphitrite (4 syllables - don't forget that e), the name of Poseidon's wife, the goddess of the ocean, is unquestionably a trite christening for a ship. But how can a ship's hull be trite? If we know the etymology, we know the answer: "Trite" comes from Latin tritus, "worn out," so it means the same as its Saxon synonyms "shopworn" and "threadbare." Thus poor, battered Amphitrite is doubly (amphi?) trite.

Every Wife Has Such a Shirt

Overheard in: The Shop at Walden during a Thoreau Society Gathering. Visitors looking over the T-shirts for sale. Different colors, different quotes from H.D.T. After long deliberation, a young man unfolds a lavender shirt and holds it up to his lady friend's chest.

He: "Here - perfect for you."
She: "You're right, yeah… I should get some for my sisters, too."
The shirt: "Always one has to contend with the stupidity of men."

From Milton to Mamie O'Rourke

A final contribution from Samuel Lachise, the armchair philologist of Qu�bec City:

In �Autumnal Tints� (Natural History Essays), Thoreau writes beautifully about the play of sunlight and foliage in the scarlet oak, his favorite tree. Remember that the scarlet-oak leaf is deeply scalloped, so that when it flutters, it mingles its earthly substance with the sky�s light. The leaves, he writes, �dance, arm in arm with the lighttripping it on fantastic points...�

�At this point I�m thinking: Whoa! Nice play on �trip the light fantastic�! But wait � that�s a line from some popular song long after Thoreau�s era-- What�s going on here?

Found out on the Web that �trip the light fantastic� was coined by Milton, a poet Thoreau knew well, in L'Allegro (1632): �Come and trip it as ye go, On the light fantastick toe.� (Thanks, Sheila at http://www.eosdev.com/logapr00.htm, a blog entry no longer active.)

�But wait again! Trip has its original sense of �step lightly,� but how can a toe be fantastic? I assume the adjective here means �capricious,� which etymologically has to do with capering or leaping.

�So now, if I leap ahead 262 years, this expression is revived in  J. W. Blake�s lyrics to the popular Sidewalks of New York, thus:

Boys and girls together,
Me and Mamie Rourke,
Tripped the light fantastic,
On the sidewalks of New York.

�The toe has vanished, and in its place the former adjective fantastic has slid into the nominal position, as if it were the name of a dance � a light dance. Another century later, my current dictionary gives trip the light fantastic as an established idiom.

�In between then and now comes H. D. Thoreau with his scarlet-oak leaf. In Thoreau�s version, light�the daylight�is the noun. The leaf trips the light (dances with it, I suppose�a loose application�by holding it in its points (its arms). Perhaps the fluttering leaf also half-obstructs the light, like a rapid-action shutter, and so blends with it. As Thoreau writes, �you can hardly tell at last what in the dance is leaf and what is light.�

Reminder: We love Thoreau's puns. Mail your favorite to [email protected] or Calliope Puns, 1116 Mass Ave, Lexington MA 02420.

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010