Putting a damper on a 'pun'

Ah, Super Bowl week. Wall-to-wall media coverage that results in both reporters and athletes looking a little ridiculous. (Evidence: We had a picture in today's paper of a player bench-pressing a reporter.)

In yesterday's paper, we had a story about rain forcing "media day activities" inside. It included this:

It led Saints running back Reggie Bush to provide the day's first pun.

“Well, it put a damper on things,” he said.

This could have been an actual pun. But a lot of people seem to think damper actually means "to get wet"; I almost never see it used in anything but a story about rain ruining something. Since it doesn't mean that, I don't think it even really works as a pun, because it wouldn't be understood as one.

Damper actually means to depress or deaden, with its roots going back to choking or smothering fumes.

Here are damper's definitions, from Webster's New World. The first is the relevant one here, with the second being related:

  • 1. Anything that deadens or depresses.
  • 2. A movable plate or valve in the flue of a stove or furnace, for controlling the draft.
  • 3. A device to check vibration in the strings of a stringed keyboard instrument.
  • 4. A device for lessening the oscillation of a magnetic needle, a moving coil, etc.

I needed the OED to get deeper into the etymology, so a friend checked it out for me. Damper comes from the verb damp. The relevant defintions:

  • 1a. Transitive. To affect with ‘damp’, to stifle, choke, extinguish; to dull, deaden (fire, sound, etc.). Also figurative.
  • 1b. To damp down (a fire or furnace): to cover or fill it with small coal, ashes, or coke, so as to check combustion and prevent its going out, when not required for some time. Also figurative.

1a refers to damp as a noun, and in the etymology for damp as a verb, the OED points back to a meaning of damp as a noun that is obsolete except when used in a  coal-mining context:

  • 1a. An exhalation, a vapour or gas, of a noxious kind. Obsolete.
  • 1b. Specifically in coal mines: (a) = CHOKE-DAMP; also called black damp, and suffocating damp. (b) = FIRE-DAMP, formerly fulminating damp.

The OED gives this etymology for damp: "Corresponds with the Middle Low German and the modern Dutch and Danish damp, meaning vapour, steam, smoke; the modern Icelandic dampr, meaning steam; the Middle High German dampf, tampf and modern German dampf, meaning vapour, steam; compares also to the Swedish damb, meaning dust."