Many see puns as cheap humour, one-liners, or groaners, despite their prevalence in our culture. They are most often seen in the names of businesses, or advertising. Others, like the writer Jonathan Swift, see them as a challenging art form, where one shapes words like a cobbler bends leather. 'Punning is an art of harmonious jingling upon words,' said Swift, 'which, passing in at the ears, excites a titillary motion in those parts; and this, being conveyed by the animal spirits into the muscles of the face, raises the cockles of the heart.'
However the dictionary describes a pun as:
A play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same word and sometimes on the similar sense or sound of different words1.
In Italian, puntiglio means 'a fine point,' hence a verbal quibble, and is most likely the source of the English 'punctilious', which means showing great attention to detail and 'correct' behaviour. There developed, in late 17th- and early 18th-Century England, a short-lived, fanciful word called 'pundigrion', which indeed was a term for what we now know as a pun. Since snappy monosyllables produced by breaking off pieces of longer words were all the rage back then, it is widely thought that this is how and where the word 'pun' was created. This then lead to words that have stemmed from 'pun' including punning, and punny - a pun in and of itself. Paronomasia denotes the act or practice of punning.
Puns are not always humorous, and sometimes not even intended to be humorous. Much like popular fads that no one will admit to supporting, puns are looked down upon and criticised. However, as people like Jonathan Swift all the way through to Ronnie Barker have shown, paronomasia is an active, and timeless craft.
Types of Word Play
Homographic or antanaclasis puns play on the multiple meanings one word may have. This is one of the more common forms of pun. For example, 'My girlfriend criticised my apartment, so I knocked her flat'. In the preceding example, the pun was created by alluding to the fact the word flat could have meant an apartment, or alluded to the girlfriend being knocked flat on her back.
Homophonic or polyptoton puns play on words that sound alike, but are spelled differently, and mean different things. For example, 'Seven days without laughter makes one weak'.
Double-sound puns refer to a word sounding similar to another word, however not identical to the sound of a word, such as homographic puns. A music teacher not at home may leave a note on their door saying, 'Gone Chopin, Bach in a Minuet'.
Ambigrams are words that can be read in more than one way or from more than a single vantage point, such as both right side up and upside down. (From Latin: ambi meaning both and gram meaning letter.) Ambigrams are purely a visual play on words, but they are included in this article for the sake of being thorough.
Palindromes are spelled the same, backwards or forwards, such as 'mom', 'race car', or 'deified'. Entire phrases can be palindromes. Punctuation does not prevent a sentence or phrase from being considered a palindrome, eg, 'Dogma: I am God.' counts as a palindrome. Here are some more examples:
- A Santa pets rats, as Pat taps a star step at NASA.
- Anne, I vote more cars race Rome to Vienna.
- Deirdre wets altar of St. Simon's; no mists, for at last ewer dried.
- E. Borgnine drags Dad's gardening robe.
- Ed, I saw Harpo Marx ram Oprah W. aside.
- Embargos are macabre. Sad Nell, listen O! not to no nets - I'll lend a Serb a camera, so grab me!
- Golf? No sir, prefer prison-flog.
Scarily enough, here's a 306-word palindrome, which begs the question, just how much spare time do some people have?
Tom Swifty puns play on a relationship between an adverb, and an action spoken in dialogue. The original Tom Swift was a fictional title character in a series of children's books written by Edward L Stratemeyer (1862-1930). Tom Swifty puns satirise the writing of these books, and their simple 'Tom said, Tom did, Tom said' writing.
- 'I've lost my trousers,' Tom said expansively.
- 'I've returned from the lobotomy,' Tom said absentmindedly.
- 'Let's dig up the bodies,' Tom said gravely.
- 'I don't like hot dogs,' Tom said frankly.
- 'No, you can't have any of my oysters,' said Tom shellfishly.
- 'I'd love some Chinese food,' said Tom wantonly.
- 'I want to date around,' said Tom unsteadily.
- 'Take the prisoner downstairs,' Tom said condescendingly.
- 'Drop the gun,' Tom said with a disarming smile.
- 'I lost my hair,' Tom bawled.
- 'I returned from Japan,' Tom said disorientedly.
- 'Is this sodomy?' Tom asked, half in Ernest.
Spoonerisms are a result of changing around, especially accidentally, the initial sounds of two or more words when speaking, eg, 'well-boiled icicle' for well-oiled bicycle. Others include 'sky as a height', 'nark staked', and 'dain brammage'.
Oxymorons are rhetorical figures in which an epigrammatic effect is created by the conjunction of incongruous or contradictory terms. Basically, they are a working contradiction (which is an oxymoron unto itself). Some oxymorons are obvious, being simple opposites, eg, 'jumbo shrimp'. However, many other oxymorons are subjective to opinion: 'military intelligence' or 'Microsoft Works'. Other examples include: 'minor miracle', 'clearly confused', 'safe sex', 'original copies', 'found missing' and 'friendly fire'.
Anagrams have always had a reputation for being difficult, but they are regarded as word play. Anagrams are words, or phrases formed by rearranging the letters of other words and phrases. What kind of mind is it that can notice that 'two plus eleven' and 'one plus twelve' not only give the same result but use the same letters? Some notable anagrams include:
- Western Union = no wire unsent
- Circumstantial evidence = can ruin a selected victim
- A stitch in time saves nine = this is meant as incentive
- Funeral = real fun
- The Morse Code = Here come dots
- Victoria, England's Queen = governs a nice quiet land
- Intoxicate = excitation
- Schoolmaster = the classroom
- Mother-in-law = woman Hitler
- Ronald Wilson Reagan = Insane Anglo Warlord
Pangrams are a special form of poetry that include every letter of the alphabet, with as little repetition as possible: Mr Jock, TV Quiz PhD, bags few lynx.
Chiasmus is a figure of speech where wit is conveyed through the reversal of words or phrases in clauses. Often used in verse, it becomes a poem of parallels. The word comes from the Greek letter Chi, which looks like an X, and indicates the 'criss-cross' arrangement of terms. Most chiasmi follow an ABBA form, where word or phrase A is followed by word or phrase B in the first clause, then in the second clause we have B followed by A. A good example of this would be, 'Never let a fool kiss you, or a kiss fool you'. Some chiasmi can become lengthy to the point they are not obvious in their symmetry.
A tongue-twister is an audible play on words, where the intent is not to convey an unexpected message, but rather to trip up the reader who attempts to speak the twister. Often they are repeated rapidly several times. They are both amusing and frustrating at the same time. Much of Dr Seuss's work can be considered tongue-twisters, but especially his book Fox in Socks which is one continuing tongue-twister.
Here are somee examples of tongue-twisters:
The sixth sick sheikh's sixth sheep's sick.
Once upon a barren moor
There dwelt a bear, also a boar,
The bear could not bear the boar,
The bear thought the boar was a bore.
At last the bear could bear no more
That boar that bored him on the moor.
And so one morn he bored the boar-
That boar will bore no more!
I am a pheasant plucker,
I'm a pheasant-plucker's son,
I will be plucking pheasants
'till the pheasant plucker comes.
Portmanteau words (or blends) are words that are formed by telescoping two other words in on themselves, such as bit (binary unit), avionics (aviation electronics), brunch (breakfast/lunch) and motel (motor hotel).
The word portmanteau itself originally meant a case in two halves, for carrying clothing, from the French portemanteau (carry cloak). Portmanteau words, in a similar way, carry two meanings. They are quite common.
One does not need to play on the pronunciation, or spelling of a pun at all. Sometimes, a clever redefinition of a word can be considered a pun. These are sometimes referred to as Daffynitions. For example, 'Flashlight: a carrying case for dead batteries' or 'Shin: a device for finding tables in the dark' and finally, 'Professor: one who talks in someone else's sleep'. The definition is unexpected, and humorous. It plays upon connotation rather than actual meaning of the word. Sometimes words that sound like groups of other words can be cleverly redefined as well.
- Alarms: what an octopus is.
- Crick: the sound that a Japanese camera makes.
- Dockyard: a physician's garden.
- Incongruous: where bills are passed.
- Khakis: what you need to start the car in Boston.
- Oboe: an English tramp.
- Pasteurise: too fast to see.
- Propaganda: a gentlemanly goose.
- Toboggan: why we go to an auction.
Also, there are extended puns. Much in the same manner as metaphors, a pun can be carried out even after the pun is realised. These puns are seen as the least humorous, but can be both challenging and fun.
Dangling by a thread, some questioned whether or not the tattered and frayed prosecution could patch up their case so close to clothesing arguments. But when pressed, the material witness in the suit came apart at the seams. 'Do not pull the wool over my eyes! Sew, it was you!' The tailor's lawyer had cotton on to her tapestry, woven together by lies, coated in tails. Some of us were on pins and needles, and one loony onlooker was in stitches. Leather or not the jury was suede was left to be steamed.
The Art of Humorous Puns
Many puns hardly ever elicit more than groans from those subjected to their obvious humour. There are many theories as to why this is. One such theory put forth by Freud states those who do not laugh at puns have punus envitas2.
What is it that makes a good pun? Here are a few pointers.
- Quick set-up (brevity is important)
- No proper names (listener might not recognise the name)
- Familiar references
- A pointed revelation (you should see the spark in the listeners' eyes as they 'get it')
- Maximum wordplay throughout
The Punishment of it All!
- If pros and cons are opposite, is progress the opposite of congress?
- I would never be caught dead with a necrophiliac.
- Necrophiliacs put the fun back in FUNeral.
- I am diagonally parked in a parallel universe.
- Diploma: Da' man who fixes da' pipes.
- Someone's karma ran over my dogma.
- If Satan lost his hair, there would be hell toupé.
- Demons are a ghoul's best friend.
- Be cowful what you utter about udders. You cud be overheard3.
- Someone stole the precinct toilet. The cops have nothing to go on.
- Fangs for the Memories: Vampire the Musical
- Confucius say: Baseball all wrong. Man with four balls, no walk.
- Confucius say: Man who spends time at cathouse spends night in dog house.
- Confucius say: Man who lay down with dogs, wakes up with fleas.
- Confucius say: Virgin like balloon. One prick, and all gone.
- Confucius say: Man who stand on toilet, high on pot.
- Confucius say: Man with hand in pocket feel cocky all day.
- Confucius say: Man who lives in glass house, change clothes in basement.
- If you throw a cat out a car window does it become kitty litter?
- If corn oil comes from corn, where does baby oil come from?
- Does fuzzy logic tickle?
- Macho: Someone who jogs home from a vasectomy.
- Better: What we instantly feel when we realise our neighbour's problems are as bad as our own.
- Dysentery: What you get when dissent merges with commentary.
- Liberal: A church with four commandments and six suggestions.
- Resume: The closest any of us will ever come to perfection.
- Date: An organised meeting with someone who has yet to realise their intense dislike for you.
- Dilemma: Trying to believe someone you normally trust when you know you would lie if you were in their place.
- Job: A place where you work just hard enough to avoid getting fired while getting paid just enough to avoid quitting.
- Sabbatical: A Latin word meaning 'I quit but you won't know it for sure for a year'.
- Irony: Buying a suit with two pairs of pants and then burning a hole in the coat.
- Insanity: Driving forty minutes to a health club, then waiting thirty minutes to get on a treadmill for twenty minutes.
- Progress: What you get when each mistake is a new one.
- Kids: People to be nice to since they are the ones who will choose your nursing home.
- Marriage: The process of finding out what type of person your spouse would prefer.