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The pun, or paronomasia, is a form of word play which exploits the ambiguity of a statement, allowing it to be understood in multiple ways for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect.[1][2] These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use and abuse of homophonic, homographic, metonymic, or metaphorical language. A pun must be deliberate —an unintentional substitution of similar words is called a malapropism. Henri Bergson defined a pun as a sentence or utterance in which "two different sets of ideas are expressed, and we are confronted with only one series of words".[3] Puns may be regarded as in-jokes or idiomatic constructions, given that their usage and meaning are entirely local to a particular language and its culture.

In formal linguistics, puns can often be found embedded within the etymological meaning or usage of words, which in turn may be buried over time and unknown to native speakers. Puns may also be found in syntax, where morphological constructions have derived from what may have originally been humorous word play, slang, or otherwise idiosyncratic word usage.


Puns can be classified in various ways:

The homophonic pun, a common type, utilizes the exploitation of word pairs which sound alike (homophones) but are not synonymous. Walter Redfern exemplified this type with his statement "To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms".[4] For example, in George Carlin's phrase "Atheism is a non-prophet institution", the word "prophet" is put in place of its homophone "profit", inverting the common phrase "[[non-profit institution". Similarly, the joke "Question: Why do we still have troops in Germany? Answer: To keep the Russians in Czech" relies on the aural ambiguity of the homophones "check" and "Czech".

A homographic pun exploits words which are spelled the same (homographs) but possess different meanings and sounds. Because of their nature, they rely on sight more than hearing, contrary to homophonic puns. They are also known as heteronymic puns. Examples in which the punned words typically exist in two different parts of speech often rely on unusual sentence construction, as in the anecdote: "When asked to explain his large number of children, the pig answered simply: "The wild oats of my sow gave us many piglets." " An example which combines homophonic and homographic punning would be Douglas Adams's line "You can tune a guitar, but you can't tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass." The phrase uses the homophonic qualities of "tune a" and "tuna", as well as the homographic pun on "bass", in which ambiguity is reached through the identical spellings of bass the instrument and the fish. Homonymic puns, another common type, arise from the exploitation of words which are both homographs and homophones. The statement "Being in politics is just like playing golf: you are trapped in one bad lie after another" puns on the two meanings of the word lie as "a deliberate untruth" and as "the position in which something rests". An adaptation of a joke repeated by Isaac Asimov gives us "Did you hear about the little moron who strained himself while running into the screen door?", playing on 'strained' as "to give much effort" and "to filter".[5] A homophonic pun may also be polysemic, in which the words must be homographic and homophonic and also possess related meanings, a condition which is often subjective. However, lexicographers define polysemes as listed under a single dictionary lemma (a unique numbered meaning) while homonyms are treated in separate lemmata.

A compound pun is a phrase that contains two or more puns. For example in the anecdotal joke: "The man, awaiting surgery to remove the malignant tumor, reportedly told interviewers: "This weight is killing me!" " This compound pun consists of the homophonic "wait/weight" and the play on the idiomatic and literal meanings of the words "you're killing me". A complex phrase by Richard Whately includes four puns: "Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But what brought the sandwiches there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred."[6] This pun uses "sand which is there/sandwiches there, "Ham (son of Noah)|Ham/ham", "mustered/mustard", and "bred/bread". Compound puns may also combine two phrases that share a word.

A recursive pun is one in which the second aspect of a pun relies on the understanding of an element in the first. For example the statement "π is only half a pie." (π radians is 180 degrees, or half a circle, and a pie is a complete circle). Another example is "A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother." [7] Finally, we are given "Immanuel doesn't pun, he Kant" by Oscar Wilde.

Richard J. Alexander notes two additional forms which puns may take: graphological puns, such as concrete poetry; and morphological puns, such as portmanteaus.[8]

Visual punsEdit

Main article: Visual pun

Visual puns are used in many logos, emblems, insignia, and other graphic symbols, in which one or more of the pun aspects are replaced by a picture. In European heraldry, this technique is called canting arms. Visual and other puns and word games are also common in Dutch gable stones as well as in some [[ Another type of visual pun exists in languages which use non-phonetic writing. For example, in Chinese, a pun may be based on a similarity in shape of the written character, despite a complete lack of phonetic similarity in the words punned upon.[9] Mark Elvin describes how this "peculiarly Chinese form of visual punning involved comparing written characters to objects."[10]

Usage Edit

Comedy and jokesEdit

Puns are a common source of humour in jokes and comedy shows. They are often used in the punch line of a joke, where they typically give a humorous meaning to a rather perplexing story. These are also known as feghoots. The following example comes from the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, though the punchline stems from far older Vaudeville roots.[11] The final line puns on the stock phrase "the lesser of two evils".

Captain Aubrey: "Do you see those two weevils, Doctor?...Which would you choose?"
Dr. Maturin: "Neither. There's not a scrap of difference between them. They're the same species of Curculio."
Captain Aubrey: "If you had to choose. If you were forced to make a choice. If there were no other option."
Dr. Maturin: "Well, then, if you're going to push me. I would choose the right-hand weevil. It has significant advantage in both length and breadth."
Captain Aubrey: "There, I have you!...Do you not know that in the Service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils?"


Non-humorous puns were and are a standard rhetorical and poetic device in English literature. Puns and other forms of word play have been used by many famous writers, such as Alexander Pope, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Bloch, Lewis Carroll, John Donne, and William Shakespeare, who is estimated to have used over 3,000 puns in his plays.[citation needed]

Here is an example from Shakespeare's Richard III:

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York" (Son/sun)

Shakespeare was also noted for his frequent play with less serious puns, the "quibbles" of the sort that made Samuel Johnson complain, "A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller! he follows it to all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible." [12] Elsewhere, Johnson disparagingly referred to punning as "the lowest form of humour".[citation needed]

In the poem A Hymn to God the Father, John Donne, married to Anne More, reportedly puns repeatedly: "Son/sun" in the second quoted line, and two compound puns on "Donne/done" and "More/more". All three are homophonic, with the puns on "more" being both homographic and capitonymic. The ambiguities serve to introduce several possible meanings into the verses.

"When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done / For I have more.
that at my death Thy Son / Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore
And having done that, Thou hast done; / I fear no more."


Like other forms of wordplay, paronomasia is occasionally used for its attention-getting or mnemonic qualities, making it common in titles and the names of places, characters, and organizations, and in advertising and slogans.[13][14]

Many restaurant and shop names use puns: Cane & Able mobility healthcare, Tiecoon tie shop, Planet of the Grapes wine and spirits...[15] as do books, such as Pies and Prejudice, comics (YU+ME: dream) and films (Good Will Hunting). The Japanese anime Speed Racer's original title, Mach GoGoGo! refers to the English word itself, the Japanese word for five (the Mach 5's car number), and the name of the show's main character, Go Mifune.

Names of characters also often carry puns, such as Ash Ketchum and Kakarot ("carrot"), the protagonists of the anime series Pokémon and Dragonball, respectively, both franchises which are known for including second meanings in the names of many of their characters. A recurring motif in the Austin Powers films repeatedly puns on names which suggest male genitalia. In the science fiction television series Star Trek, "B-4" is used as the name of one of four androids models constructed "before" the android Data, a main character.

The parallel sequel The Lion King 1½ advertised with the phrase "You haven't seen the 1/2 of it!". Wyborowa Vodka employed the slogan "Enjoyed for centuries straight", while Northern Telecom used "Technology the world calls on."[13]

Confusion and alternate usesEdit

There exist subtle differences between paronomasia and other literary techniques, such as the double entendre. While puns are often simple wordplay for comedic or rhetorical effect, a double entendre alludes to a second meaning which is not contained within the statement or phrase itself, often one which purposefully disguises the second meaning. As both exploit the use of intentional double meanings, puns can sometimes be double entendres, and vice versa. Puns also bear similarities with paraprosdokian, syllepsis and eggcorns. In addition, homographic puns are sometimes compared to the stylistic device antanaclasis, and homophonic puns to polyptoton.

In scientific contexts, the term punning is sometimes used to describe either unintentional muddled thinking or intentional deception where the same word is used with two subtly different meanings.[citation needed] In statistical contexts, for example, the word significant is usually assumed to mean "statistically significant", which has a precisely defined technical meaning. Using significant with the layperson meaning "of practical significance" in such contexts would qualify as punning, such as the webcomic xkcd's double pun "statistically significant other".[16]

In computer science, the term type punning refers to a programming technique that subverts or circumvents the type system of a programming language, by allowing a value of a certain type to be manipulated as a value of a different type.

See alsoEdit


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Retrieved 7 February 2009
  2. 2009. Retrieved 23 April 2010.
  3. Augarde, Tony. The Oxford Guide to Word Games, p.205
  4. Puns, Blackwell, London, 1984
  5. Asimov, Isaac. Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor, p. 175, § 252. 1971. Houghton Mifflin. New York.
  8. Alexander, Richard J. Aspects of Verbal Humour in English, pp.21-41
  9. Attardo, Salvatore. Linguistic Theories of Humor, p.109. Walter de Gruyter, 1994. Alleton, V. : L'écriture chinoise. Paris, 1970.
  10. Mark Elvin "The Spectrum of Accessibility : Types of Humor in The Destinies of the Flowers in the Mirror", p. 113. In :- Roger T. Ames (et al.) : Interpreting Culture through Translation: a Festschrift for D. C. Lau. 1991. pp. 101-118.
  11. Levitt, Paul M. (2002). Vaudeville Humor: The Collected Jokes, Routines, and Skits of Ed Lowry, Southern Illinois University Press.
  12. Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare.
  13. 13.0 13.1
  16. Boyfriend. xkcd. URL accessed on 2010-05-07.


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