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Mems & Puns – an Introduction

By Memrise Blog

As you know, mems are ways of linking words to vivid images to make the word more memorable. Mems work because we remember seeing things much more strongly than we remember thinking things. A vivid image comes into your brain much more readily than the meaning of a word.

But the ears are important, too: the reason that ‘feel his teats’ is a good hint to the meaning of ‘felicitate’ is that they sound the same. In effect, mems are puns – so I thought I’d write a little about puns.

Puns involve changing a word in a sentence for one that sounds the same but that has a different meaning. (Why was ten scared? Because seven ate nine). Puns are about the simplest form of joke and people love them or hate them.

The English playwright William Shakespeare loved puns: there are around three thousand in his plays, including this by Mercutio, who knows he is about to die and go to his grave: “If you look for me tomorrow you will find I am a grave man”. (btw ‘grave’ means ‘serious’. Hilarious.)

The English writer Samuel Johnson loved words (he compiled one of the first English Dictionaries pretty much by himself) but hated puns: he called them ‘the lowest form of humour’.

Whether you love them or hate them they are everywhere. Hairdressers love them especially – the below are all real:

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Crops and Bobbers

Thairapy Salon

The Hairport

Puns cause a strong reaction in our brains, either towards laughing or groaning – one way to test a child for autism is to see whether he or she reacts to a pun. Either a laugh or a groan is normal; no reaction is an indicator of the disorder. And it’s this strong reaction, coupled with the power of our visual memories, that make mems work.

I finish with a spectacular pun from Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin in the 19th Century:

“Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But what brought the sandwiches there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred.”