If it is true that creativity is akin to play, then it should not surprise us, and indeed we should expect, that writers will play with words. We know this game of word play as punning, where we use the same word in different senses in the same context. There are, in fact, many different kinds of puns, but this general term will serve us to become aware of the game in a sentence by the American author Kate Chopin.

Mrs. Sommers is the protagonist of Chopin’s short story A Pair of Silk Stockings, and having come unexpectedly into some little bit of money, Mrs. Sommers goes on a shopping spree of sorts, in search of something which ultimately cannot be found and bought amidst all the things that attract her attention. She finds herself eventually at a newsstand, where Chopin writes this interesting sentence (I quote it from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2015): “Mrs. Sommers bought two high-priced magazines such as she had been accustomed to read in the days when she had been accustomed to other pleasant things.” Our attention catches on the two instances of the word accustomed, each close to the other and each used in a different sense, the very work of a pun.

The word accustomed is an adjective, and it stands as a predicate adjective in two identical verb phrases here: she had been accustomed. In the first instance, Mrs. Sommers is said to have been accustomed to read a certain kind of magazine, high-priced ones, which means she was used to reading them, it was her habit or custom or wont to read them. The adjective in this first use is followed by an infinitive, to read, and this alerts us to the idea of ongoing past action: reading a certain kind of magazine was something she did regularly, a common practice for Mrs. Sommers in which we can begin to see the kind of person she was, for what we do is what we are, a traditional principle that dramatic writers build from and elaborate.

The second instance of this same adjective, however, turns things to a slightly different light. To say that Mrs. Sommers had been accustomed to other pleasant things means to say that such things were customary or characteristic of her, not merely the doing of something, but the very having of certain pleasant things. Notice here that in this second use, the adjective accustomed is followed not by a verb, but by a noun, things, the object of the prepositional phrase to other pleasant things. It is one thing to be in the habit of doing something; it is another to be used to something, expectant, waiting, even perhaps feeling deserving of certain very pleasant things.

The difference in meaning between these two uses of the same adjective is slight, but that is exactly where a pun finds its power. The term pun is derived from the Italian noun puntiglio, a fine point or a point of careful distinction (whence our words punctilio, the close observance of ceremony or conduct, and punctilious, being ceremoniously correct). It is that slight difference here, the fine point of distinction between being used to doing something and regularly having certain things that draws the outline of Mrs. Sommers’ character in bright relief. We come to learn in the final sentence of Chopin’s story that “poignant wish” and “powerful longing” were the very heart of Mrs. Sommers in the life she is living, having lost once-accustomed things, and so having lost in part herself.


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