Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Posted at 1:52 PM ET, 02/17/2011

IBM's Watson wins! First Jeopardy! -- next, bad puns?

By Alexandra Petri

Okay, Watson.

You won.

Are you happy now? No, I am pretty sure that you are not, given that you are a machine without emotions, but it felt like the right rhetorical question to ask.

I've been reading "Final Jeopardy! Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything", Stephen Baker's account of the genesis of our "new computer overlord." Watson is as much a product of human intelligence as an opposing contender, and the narrative probes the questions of what knowledge means and how a computer can be made to approximate some of the most select processes of the human mind. But in spite of all this talk about teaching Watson to maneuver through the rich realm of human language - Watson's nearest evolutionary ancestor might be David Ferrucci's Brutus, a computer the AI expert attempted to train to write literature - Watson's accomplishments boil down to essentially one fact:

We have taught a machine to understand bad puns.

Do you not realize what we have unleashed?

Stephen Leacock said that the inveterate punster follows conversation as a shark follows a ship. "A pun is the lowest form of humor," wrote Oscar Levant, "if you didn't think of it first."

As an inveterate punster myself, I know the danger this poses to the human race. Forget SkyNet. This is infinitely more dangerous.

At an impressionable age, I was given a book entitled "Pun and Games" by someone named Richard Lederer. This book made me nothing short of a public menace, teaching me (as the scientists taught Watson) to parse phrases into their component parts and grasp their potential for double meanings. "The man who hated seabirds left no turn unstoned," I repeated to myself as I skipped rope. "She who throws mud loses ground. How do you stop an elephant from charging? Take away his Mastercard!"

The only effect that all this knowledge of puns has had (besides enabling me to dominate the Math Puns category during my sole appearance on Jeopardy!) has been to make me socially unpresentable. I attended a debutante ball to celebrate the attendees' coming out into society. "Wow," I said, "this takes a lot of courage, coming out in front of your grandfather and the city elders." Everyone glowered at me. I once met a girl named Mercedes Bent. "Were you an accident?" I asked. (Apologies to Mercedes Bent, who I'm sure is a lovely and wanted person.) Graffiti seemed to me a constant challenge. Where the wall said, "No snitches" I would pencil in, "Makes for a terrible game of Quidditch!"

The only successful application of all these puns was during college, which offered the chance to write a musical entirely in puns for something called the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. (I urge you to go see Kashmir If You Can, their current show, which might already be sold out, but then again, might not!) Like most things that rely heavily on puns, it is a relic from the 1830s that involves a lot of support hose, but you have to work with what you're given.

What always amazed me about this was that, in spite of the fact that they would actively run from me at parties and attempt to shun me in social situations, people filled the rows night after night to hear some of the worst groaners imaginable - "Did you hear that someone tried to kill the author of the Iliad with an automatic pistol? Yeah, he tried to GLAUCOMA!"

The desire for puns runs deep in our blood, like some sort of hereditary disease, or hemoglobin. Jesus, if the Bible is to be believed, was an inveterate punster. "We're fishermen," Peter and Andrew told him, in Ancient Greek. "Now you're fishers OF men!" he shot back.

They have continued down the ages. Pope Gregory I reportedly said of the Angles in England that they were "Non angli sed angeli" - not angles, but Angels! Laugh? I thought I'd die!

And they linger on today, to the point that we are starting to push back. There're puns - "What has big ears, four legs and a trunk?" "A vacationing mouse!" And now there're anti-puns. "What's brown and sticky?" we joke. "A stick!"

But once you start, you can't stop. Puns are like your personal romantic history - painful, and annoying to everyone around you if you try to work them into conversation.

Still, I wonder whether or not puns might be a symptom of the human condition. After all, they're all over Twitter. Someone comes up with a hashtag like "Less Ambitious Movies" or "Failed Rock Bands" or "Disturbing Sitcoms" or "Julian Assange Movie Titles" - Leakily Blonde, anyone? - and suddenly the world overflows with puns. What is it about them? We despise them - Jon Stewart rants against their overuse on the news, where you'll see headlines like 'Craigslist Congressman Loses Shirt Over Online Pics' and opening lines like: "Michael Vick once fought and electrocuted dogs. Now, as the Eagles' starting quarterback, he is the most electric player in the National Football League." That might not be a pun, but it stems from the same impulse to turn words inside out along their seams.

Freud said puns were easy. They are. They come from our innate human ability to grasp the slipperiness of language. They get you coming and going. A friend of mine once noted that "coming up with the cereal killer pun is probably the most universal human experience." I think there's something in that.

Watson didn't quite go through anything like my apprenticeship. But somewhere inside him is a logical connection that lights up in response to quips, a filter for double meanings. It's a handy tool. Language is a perplexing medium whose meanings slip away as you try to grasp at them, and the ability to laugh at this confusion has always been a boon. Annoying as it was, to pun was human.

How long will that still be true?

Who knows, but I'm not inviting Watson to any cocktail parties.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 17, 2011; 1:52 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  Jeopardy!, puns, twitter  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: How Obama's meeting with Facebook's Zuckerberg should go
Next: Monopoly Live? Are we really this lazy?


What do the French call French bread? ... Bread.
What's brown and sits in the grass? ... 'Gomer's' Pile.
How many Frenchmen does it take to change a light bulb? ... Who cares?
What's flat and glows in the dark? ... Probably Iran someday.
Why does Iraqs' new Navy have glass bottomed boats? ... So they can see the old Iraq Navy. (British, German, Japanese .... Whatever).

Posted by: deepthroat21 | February 17, 2011 3:26 PM | Report abuse

If 'Poobie' Carmichael marries Charles Boop, would it be OK to thence introduce her at future soire`s as Mrs. Poobie Boop?
You probably need to O. D. on old "Laugh In" TV episodes. Goldie Hawn got started there.

Posted by: deepthroat21 | February 17, 2011 3:41 PM | Report abuse

turn unstoned? Must be the spell checker.

Posted by: jimward21 | February 18, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company