Finding the humour in puns

Two contrasting views on puns in science reporting are expressed in Nature‘s Correspondence pages. First, Jeff Craig of the Royal Children’s Hospital, Victoria, Australia (Nature448, 864-865; 2007) writes: I beg to differ with Renée M. Ned and Lisa N. Steele’s Correspondence ’Slang’s not so slick when you remember its origins’ (Nature 447, 775; 2007) about the use of the word ‘pimp’ in a News Feature headline (‘Pimp my antibody’ Nature 446, 964–966; 2007).

The word first appeared in sixteenth-century France as the verb pimper, meaning ‘to dress elegantly’, and as the adjective pimpant, ‘alluring in dress, seductive’. In the seventeenth century, the word was associated with ‘a knave, rascal, varlet, scoundrel’, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The vulgar modern meaning probably derives from a combination of these. The sense in which it is used by the television show Pimp My Ride could imply dressing an automobile elegantly — admittedly with a hint of flashy style.

I personally find the use of puns, colloquialisms and cultural references more objectionable, as they are likely to be understandable to only a fraction of Nature‘s global readership. The English language is sufficiently complex without the need to understand these sometimes obscure references in the headlines of Nature News stories and other similar articles.

A quick scan of a few issues yields: “…over a pork barrel”; “Oceanography: Churn, churn, churn”; “…science in premier league”; “State of the donation”; “Astrophysics: The answer is blowing in the wind”; “Scot on the rocks”; and “The silence of the robins”. As a native English speaker I may understand and appreciate these, but many others wouldn’t.

Milan Hopkins, of Upper Lake, California, on the other hand, writes (Nature 448, 865; 2007): Beyond the excellence of the scientific reporting, I particularly enjoy the entertaining use of language and the enlightened levity of Nature. Consequently, I am somewhat concerned by the complaint of R. M. Ned and L. N. Steele (’Slang’s not so slick when you remember its origins’ Nature 447, 775; 2007) regarding the use of the verb ‘pimp’, because of its “immoral origins”.

Should I take offence because the use of the terms ‘wimp’ and ‘macho’ to denote putative particles might perpetuate negative stereotyping of my gender?

The freedom and, especially, the humour of scientific reporting may be hindered by misguided attempts to avoid offending moralists.


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