The Perfect Pun

I get my love of puns from my father. I am sure of this for two reasons: first, everyone on his side of the family adores them, and, second, I sure didn’t get it from Mom. She considers them the absolute lowest form of humor. In most cases, I don’t dispute this – indeed, it’s often what I like about them – but, very occasionally, I find one that rises above. In particular, I believe very strongly that, in 1890, Rudyard Kipling published the Perfect Pun.

Some context is necessary. The Battle of Balaclava in 1854, and the heroic charge of the Light Brigade, inspired Alfred, Lord Tennyson to write one of his most famous poems. It was an immediate sensation. The reputation of the Light Brigade as a group of heroes was assured.

By 1890, however, the Crimean War was long since over and the soldiers had come home. Many of them were struggling. Kipling, who could always be relied upon to respect a veteran, wrote a sort of sequel to Tennyson’s poem, intended as a rebuke to the British public for their stinginess. The Last of the Light Brigade is fairly free of nuance, but, in my opinion, no less effective for that:

There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four!

There’s more; I won’t quote it all. What I’m interested in, in particular, is the final stanza:

O thirty million English that babble of England’s might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children’s children are lisping to “honour the charge they made”
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

It is the last line in which we find the Perfect Pun.

First of all, it is perfect in a technical sense. Some puns are based on rhymes, some on slight mispronounciations, but the most impressive ones, in my opinion, come from when the exact same word has a cleverly-exploited double meaning. Here, that would be the word “charge.” When spoken, there’s even a bonus pun on the title of Tennyson’s poem, although that becomes less true in written form since “charge” isn’t capitalized. Either way, I have no notes on the execution.

More importantly, this pun achieves the absolute maximum of meaning that is possible for any pun, anywhere. Humor often arises from incongruities, and wordplay is funny because it points out the differences between what our language implies and what we actually believe. Consider the following joke:

What do you call a strange market?

A bizarre bazaar.

(This was actually computer-generated as part of Abhinav Moudgil’s research.)

There’s no reason why a market should be, inherently, a particularly strange thing. There are plenty of perfectly normal ones. That’s why the joke is funny: it points out that there is a connection in the English language, an extra layer of meaning, that doesn’t actually match our worldview. We are almost laughing at our own failure to construct a language free of such accidents.

Kipling’s pun certainly demonstrates an unexpected connection. However, in the context of the poem, it goes much further. Rather than simply laugh at the multiple meanings of “charge,” Kipling argues that those meanings should in fact be connected by more than the word. If you charge the guns at Balaclava, someone else should responsibly take charge of you when you return home. To do otherwise is shameful, and, even if you don’t believe this, your language does. The entire poem hinges on the contrast between the speeches of the poets and the actions of the rich, and the tension between word and deed culminates here. There simply cannot be any more meaning packed into a pun of any kind. Hypocrisy is the ultimate split between our language and our consensus reality, and Kipling’s pun shows us the full extent of English hypocrisy in a single phrase.

There is one last wrinkle. Although it’s not the most obvious thing ever, this pun isn’t particularly difficult to construct or to understand. Almost anybody could have written it in isolation. The only real requirement would have been to regularly think about the word “charge” both in the sense of the military action and in the sense of caring for people – which would have been a common pair of thoughts to have among those who managed a hypothetical pension for veterans of the Light Brigade. The fact that Kipling can make this crack at all, and that we find it surprising rather than absolutely done to death, proves that there really is nobody to whom the soldiers can turn.

This, to me, is where it graduates from a perfect pun to the Perfect Pun. Most puns just sort of sit there, hoping that someone will find them funny; this one is made even more powerful by the very fact that it exists as a pun at all. You cannot respond to it with the usual exasperated sigh, because asking for it to be removed from your life is proving Kipling’s point for him. It may not be very funny in the classical sense, and it may come with a feeling of awkwardness and shame that most jokes try to avoid, but the Perfect Pun does have one thing in common with the best lines from any comedian. It exists to make you mad that you didn’t think of it yourself.

Written on October 16, 2023