Once a pun a time: Can telling bad jokes be compulsive?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always had an unhealthy interest in punning. Whether it’s the titles of my blogs or everyday conversation, I can’t seem to resist getting in a pun wherever I can. (I also have a whole section on my CV dedicated to my ‘humorous’ articles including ones that feature nothing but puns). For the purposes of being clear as to what I am actually talking about, a pun – according to the Oxford English Dictionary – is a form of word play that suggests two (or in some cases more) meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words. Author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson went as far as to claim punning the lowest form of humour. In his book ‘Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious’, Sigmund Freud asserted that puns are “the lowest form of verbal joke, probably because they are the cheapest – can be made with the least trouble…[and] merely form a sub-species of the group which reaches its peak in the play upon words proper”.

There are a number of references to various forms of ‘compulsive punning’ in the psychological literature. One such name is that of “Foerster’s syndrome”. This was coined by the Hungarian-British author and journalist Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) in a description of the compulsive punning first described by the German neurologist Otfrid Foerster (1873-1941). Back in 1929, Dr Foerster was carrying out brain surgery on a fully conscious male patient who had a brain tumour. When Foerster began to manipulate the patient’s tumor, the patient began a manic outburst of telling one pun after another.

In 1929, a psychiatrist Dr. A.A. Brill reported what he believed were the first cases of Witzelsücht (“punning mania”) in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. The word ‘Witzelsücht’ comes from the German words ‘witzeln’ (to make jokes or wisecracks), and ‘sücht’ (a yearning or addiction). This rare condition is characterized as a set of neurological symptoms resulting in an uncontrollable tendency to tell puns, inappropriate jokes, and/or pointless or irrelevant stories at inappropriate times. The patient nevertheless finds these utterances intensely amusing. Brill described some of the cases he had come across including a 31-year man with a brain tumour who made puns “about anything and everything”.

This observation by Dr. Brill is not unsurprising as the condition is most commonly seen in those people that have damaged the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex (situated in the frontal lobes of the brain) and often caused by brain trauma, stroke, or a tumour. It is this part of the brain that is most involved in the cognitive processing of decision-making. Old aged people are thought to be most prone to Witzelsucht because of the decreasing amount of grey matter. The condition is also listed in Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, which defines Witzelsücht as “a mental condition characteristic of frontal lesions and marked by the making of poor jokes and puns…at which the patient himself is intensely amused”.

It has also been observed that those people with hypomanic disorders are also more prone to engage in excessive punning. During hypomanic epidodes, people’s speech is typically louder and more rapid than usual. Furthermore, it may be full of jokes, puns, plays on words, and irrelevancies. Others have noted that hypomanic episodes may comprise unexplained tearfulness alternating with excessive punning and jocularity.

Neurologist Dr. Kenneth Heilman (University of Florida, USA) says he sees several cases of Witzelsücht each year. “One of the most dramatic cases (that I’ve seen) appeared to be attracted to my reflex hammer. After I checked his deep tendon reflexes and put my hammer down, he picked up the hammer and started to check my reflexes, while giggling”. However, Dr. Heilman (as far as I am aware) has not published any of his findings or clinical observations.

A case study published by Dr. Mario Mendez (University of California at Los Angeles, USA) in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience claimed that Witzselsucht can occur in those with frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Over a period of two years and as dementia set in, a 57-year-old woman became the life and soul of parties, and would laugh, joke, and sing all the time. During medical examinations, she was highly talkative, animated, and disinhibited. Dr. Mendez reported that she was preoccupied with continuous silly laughter, excitement and frequent childish jokes and puns (i.e., Witzelsücht). Magnetic resonance imaging revealed major atrophy in the anterior temporal lobes of the brain. Citing previous (mostly old German) psychiatric literature, Mendez asserted that FTD is a disorder with a range of neuropsychiatric symptoms that can include Witzelsücht. This includes excessive and inappropriate facetiousness, jokes, and pranks. The woman was given a serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and other psychoactive medications and her Witzelsucht subsided.

Also in 2005, Ying-Chu Chen and colleagues (National Cheng Kung University Medical Center, Taiwan) published a case report of Witzelsücht and hypersexuality after a stroke. The case involved a 56-year-old man who suffered a stroke. The stroke caused a facial palsy and dysphagia (i.e., difficulty in swallowing). Over the next few days, he became gradually more alert. By the fifth day following the stroke, the man became highly talkative. However, he started telling inappropriate jokes and witticisms, and became euphoric, prankish, and opinionated. He was concerned about his resulting functional deficits, but talked about them in a humorous fashion. Simultaneously with the punning, he also developed hypersexual tendencies, and used erotic words when women were nearby. He also harassed young nurses and other female caregivers. He was unable to correct his inappropriate behaviours. His relatives were very surprised at his inappropriate jokes and the hypersexual behaviours, which were different from that before he had the stroke.

Like the case mentioned previously, he was also given an SSRI as part of his treatment. The use of SSRIs produced a moderate reduction of the man’s aberrant behaviours. Although the physical consequences of the stroke improved, the man’s wife reported that his endless jokes were not only inappropriate in terms of context, but were often obscene. His medication was changed and he was given a noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor. Over the following two months, the inappropriate punning and hypersexual behaviors were rarely noticed.

Finally, (for no other reason than to leave you with a smile on your face), I thought I’d leave you with my top 10 favourite puns that have some connection with the topics of my blogs.

  • A good pun is its own reword
  • A pessimist’s blood type is always b-negative.
  • A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother.
  • A man needs a mistress just to break the monogamy
  • Is a book on voyeurism a peeping tome?
  • Dancing cheek-to-cheek is really a form of floor play.
  • Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?
  • A gossip is someone with a great sense of rumour
  • When you dream in colour it’s a pigment of your imagination
  • When two egotists meet, it’s an I for an I

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brill, A.A. (1929). Unconscious insight: Some of its manifestations. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 10, 145-161.

Chen, Y-C., Tseng, C-Y. & Pai, M-C. (2005). Witzelsucht after right putaminal hemorrhage: A case report. Acta Neurol Taiwan, 14, 195-200.

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconsciousness. New York: W.W. Norton

Garfield, E. (1987). The crime of pun-ishment. Essays of an Information Scientist, 10, 174-178.

Griffiths, M.D. (1989). It’s not funny: A case study of ‘punning mania’. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 2, 272.

Koestler, A. (1964). The Act of Creation. New York: Penguin Books, New York.

Mendez, M.F. (2005). Moria and Witzelsucht from frontotemporal dementia. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 17, 429-430.

Shammi, P. & Stuss, D.T. (1999). Humour appreciation: a role of the right frontal lobe. Brain, 122, 657-66.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 27, 2012, in Compulsion, Mania, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Popular Culture, Psychiatry, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This was fascinating. My husband and I both love puns, but not, I believe, to an unhealthy excess! I’ve got to tell him about this article though. I’ll encourage him to read it with an oh-pun mind. And next time he goes into an elaborate setup only to deliver a really bad one, I’ll ask him if he cares to borrow my Zoloft.

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