To pun or not, ‘toff justice’ and the death of Liz Dawn…

WHERE do you stand on puns? Wordplay is something I enjoy, but there are those among us who are no pun at all.

Oh, look, there’s no need to raise your eyebrows like that: where’s the harm in a pun? A punny thing often rolls off my tongue. But it is true that puns are less popular than once they were.

To me, a pun suggests playfulness, an awareness of the way language can be turned and twisted. Others feel they get in the way or are just plain indecent. All I can say is that Shakespeare had no problem and his characters are often spitting out puns.

A life in newspapers has left me with many pun scars, the stripes of the trade. But the old habit must be watched nowadays, as the Irish paper I work on two days a week does not favour puns, although you can smuggle one through occasionally.

These circuitous thoughts have been stirred by the death of the Coronation Street actor Liz Dawn, or ‘Corrie legend Vera’ in tabloid shorthand. Many of today’s headlines simply use her character’s catchphrase, with variations on “Ta-ra chuck” – a predictable but friendly usage.

The Daily Star goes down the pun route. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but “The end of a Vera” hits a dull note to my ears. It’s the sort of headline that’s easy to compose: change one letter and, hey, you have a pun. Tellingly, the other papers avoid that path.

The tricky thing with puns is whether they are any good or not: do they mint something new or hit the floor like a dropped brick?

The Sun yesterday had the headline “Toff justice” above the story of the Oxford medical student who was, reportedly, spared a jail sentence for stabbing her boyfriend because she was too “pretty, posh and clever”.

Whatever the truth of that story, the pun hurried on to the front page didn’t work for me, missing the mark while also leaving a nasty aftertaste.

Sometimes a story is forced into a template, and that is what happened with Lavinia Woodward, who pleaded guilty to unlawful wounding at an earlier Crown Court case, and has now been given a 10-month prison sentence, suspended for 18 months.

The judge who heard the case observed that the victim’s wounds were superficial, and decided to defer sentence, a legal process which allows defendants to avoid an immediate jail sentence. Woodward was given time to address drug and alcohol problems, and to continue receiving counselling.

That seems like the law acting with wisdom and compassion, although the editor of the Sun would clearly disagree. Woodward has voluntarily withdrawn from her medical studies, which is another sort of punishment.

But let’s veer back to Vera. I am not much of a Corrie fan, although it’s hard to avoid an awareness of the classic days. And Vera was one of the great characters, a comic grotesque worthy of Dickens, and, in the words of the Daily Telegraph today, the “resident nagging loudmouth” who had “the tongue of a viper and the cry of a corncrake”.

Liz Dawn wasn’t her real name, and I can find no reference to why she chose rather a plain name over her actual name of Sylvia Butterfield. That’s a good Yorkshire name for a woman born in Leeds.

Dawn first appeared in Corrie in 1974 and remained there until 2008, when lung disease forced her to leave the show. Her character Vera Duckworth died in her sleep, but was fleetingly resurrected in 2010, when she appeared as a ghost as her husband Jack died. The eternally quarrelsome pair settled their differences with a last waltz.

I am sniffy about the Star, a newspaper I never actually pick up for fear of what might be caught. But in an attempt at even-handedness, here is the paper’s punning headline for when Jeremy Clarkson and co were dropped from the BBC after Clarkson punched someone on his team: “Strop Gear.”

Not bad, that one.

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