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Our Lin-sane attraction to terrible puns, explained

By Cari Nierenberg

Lin case you hadn't noticed, people have become Lin-fatuated with the Lin-spiring rags-to-riches story of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. He's a regular Linternet phenomenon! 

It's already been about two weeks since Linsanity took hold, and yet headlines, sports commentators and homemade signs at Madison Square Garden still haven't run out of awful new ways to play on the Harvard grad's name: Lin long and prosper. Lin-credible. "All he does is Lin Lin Lin." (That last one comes courtesy of Shaq's Twitter feed.)

What is happening here, and why can't we stop? 

The appeal of puns may be that they're fun to create, and they can seem almost addictive because they have clever elements and insights to them, says Dr. Peter McGraw, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

But not everyone likes puns or enjoys them, because they may not have the word skills to quickly recognize the misuse of language, he says.

"Unlike other forms of humor, puns may only appeal to a small subset of the population who can catch and identify the wordplay," points out McGraw, who directs the Humor Research Lab.

As for what makes things funny, McGraw and a colleague have come up with their own theory that humor is elicited by benign violations. This hypothesis suggests that anything that is threatening to your sense of how the world "ought to be" will be humorous, as long as the threatening situation also seems benign. 

Given this theory, Lin puns violate linguistic (Lin-guistic!) norms of how words ought to be, but they may only get a few yuks out of bookish types or sports fans who can catch their meaning. Word nerds and jocks -- united at last. 

"Puns are considered the lowest form of humor -- a reason why speakers say, 'no pun intended,' denying responsibility for their spontaneous e-joke-ulation," quips Dr. Robert Provine, a laughter researcher and a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"Like all forms of humor, puns require an audience," says Provine, the author of "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation."  An audience is needed because, as he phrases it, "how else can you trigger the groans that are the gold standard of triumphant punning?"

Some puns may generate chuckles; others get groans, while many are simply ignored. "Without reinforcement," he suggests, "punning quickly disappears."

What's the best Jeremy Lin pun you've heard? What's the absolute worst? 

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