July 12, 2004

Conundrums, quibbles and clenches

The Tour de France is taking a day off, and so Samuel Abt has been reduced to writing an article about headline puns on the name of Iban Mayo, now in 89th position, 15:02 behind the leader. "Mayo On a Roll", "Salad Days", "Hold the Mayo", and so on. You can imagine.

To quote Stephen Maturin:

'He that would make a pun would pick a pocket,' said Stephen, 'and that miserable quibble is not even a pun, but a vile clench.'

Then again, it was also Stephen Maturin who explained that the " dog watches" are so called "because they are curtailed".

Dryden -- the same one who invented the "rule" against stranded prepositions, in criticizing Ben Jonson -- is said to have complained of Shakespeare's "comic wit degenerating into clenches" .

Another odd piece of pedantic punology is the fact that conundrum (according to the OED) first meant "pedant, crotchet-monger, or ninny" (from 1596), and then "a whim, crotchet, maggot, conceit" (from 1605), and then "a pun or word-play depending on similarity of sound in words of different meaning" (from 1645).

The same is true for quibble, which first meant "a play upon words, a pun", which is the sense intended in Johnson's dictionary definition of conundrum:

1755-73 JOHNSON, Conundrum, a low jest; a quibble; a mean conceit: a cant word.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 12, 2004 04:08 PM