That’s an old joke from my childhood, and the surprise/unexpected answer is funny because we assume that “red” is the color red, whereas actually it was “read” meaning the past tense of the word read.
The fact that our language contains words that sound the same but mean different things allows for many simple jokes like this, using puns — plays on words — to create humor.
We discuss the idea of puns in my English class when we start reading the play Julius Caesar, because Shakespeare used puns in his plays to get the attention of the commoners, who enjoyed these types of simple jokes. Unfortunately, since the English language has changed since the 1500s, I need to explain the now-archaic meaning of some of the words because otherwise the puns, that were funny then, we don’t “get” now. It sort of takes the fun out of a joke when you have to explain it. Nevertheless, I try to explain.
Our language is full of double meanings.
When writing newspaper headlines, editors have to watch for that. There is a section of our journalism textbook that lists what it calls “headline headaches” — headlines which are confusing and sometimes funny because they can be taken two different ways.
For example, there’s “Farmer Bill Dies in House,” which was supposed to mean that a piece of legislation involving farmers did not pass in the House of Representatives. However, on first reading, it sounds like someone named Farmer Bill has died.
Here’s another one: “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim.” It’s supposed to mean that an emergency squad gave first aid to someone who was bitten by a dog. However, it also sounds like the emergency squad participated in helping the dog bite the person.
Don’t you love the English language?
Recently, on reading the Reflector, I interpreted something the wrong way, due to the multiple meanings words can have.
It was an article by the Reflector’s outdoor columnist, Dick Martin, with the headline “Finding antler sheds a ‘new’ sport.” I am not a hunter, or a fisherman, so sometimes the words and phrases Martin uses in his “Firelands Outdoor Notebook” column are not familiar to me — like “antler sheds,” for example.
When I read that headline, I thought there was such a thing as a shed, or storage building, where antlers are kept. I read the column because I thought that must be a peculiar sport, to look for sheds that contain antlers.
As I read, I realized my mistake, and I found the article fascinating. I didn’t know that male deer shed, or lose, their antlers at the end of the breeding season (when they no longer need them to fight for does), and grow new ones the next year. They literally shed their antlers — they fall off! It has nothing to do with a storage shed. Now I know that when walking through the woods, people can find pieces of antlers that the bucks have shed — and sometimes, Martin wrote, one can even find a pair of matching antlers intact. How cool is that.
Also in that article, it referred to a 10-point buck, That has to do with measuring the deer’s antlers. I knew that because one of my students who hunts had explained it to me once before. But had I not known that, it would have also puzzled me. A pencil has a point. A period looks like a point. I can point my finger. But the word “point” to describe a deer?
Words can do many things. I hope you get the point.
Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at [email protected]