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Punchline

Q From Greg Balding; related questions came from Peter Morris and Bruce Beatie: Despite your concern about its linguistic entertainment value, I found your piece on collapse of stout party fascinating. Among other things it highlights just how different humour is in different cultures and times. The question it didn’t answer for me though (and to be fair it wasn’t asked) is which came first: Punch the magazine or punch the line?

A It would be reasonable to guess that Punch, at one time the premier humour magazine in Britain, gave the language our term for the climactic final words or phrase of a joke or story.

But it didn’t. It isn’t even British, since the first recorded usages — a century ago — are from the US. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from the Marion Star of Ohio in 1916, but the idea was around earlier:

The play was ‘The Power of Politics’ and it had a punch in every line.

Racine Journal-News (Wisconsin), 28 Feb. 1912.

It is true that ballads are deliberately written with all sorts of mathematical calculation as to “punch lines” and similar technical detail. But for all that success remains an inexplicable incident.

The New York Times, 7 Sep. 1913.

These confirm that it came out of show business and that the first senses were of delivering lines of a play or song to the greatest possible effect — punching them — or of creating lines to affect the hearer powerfully. Later it became applied in particular to the last line of a story that contains the point or joke. There can be no doubt that the figurative punches are from fists, the shock of receiving a blow being equated with the visceral response to hearing an unexpected or felicitous line.

Punch magazine, by the way, took its name from the puppet companion to Judy, which was borrowed from a buffoonish stock character in the Italian commedia dell’arte, usually known as Punchinello. No connection at all with punches of the physical sort.

Page created 17 Oct. 2009

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Last modified: 17 October 2009.