How Puns Work as a Play on Words
A pun is a play on words used to startle or confuse the reader or the listener.
Puns often create deliberate confusion between words that sound the same such as sun and son, or words that have different meanings, as in mole, which might refer to:
- a burrowing animal
- an undercover espionage agent
The exact origin of the word “pun” is unclear, although most authorities attribute its ancestry to the Latin word punctus, meaning to prick. That would certainly explain essayist Charles Lamb’s view of what a good pun should be:
“A pun is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit. It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.”
What Is a Pun?
The pun, which is also called paranomasia, is a type of word play used to suggest two or more meanings. The purpose of the pun is to deliberately exploit the potential multiple meanings inherent in words for comical or rhetorical purposes, such as:
Double negatives are a no-no.
Pity the Poor Pun
Thanks to Samuel Johnson, puns have a poor reputation and generally get a bad press. He described the pun as “the lowest form of humour.” The implication here is that you don’t need to be incredibly clever to come up with a good pun. And yet Shakespeare, James Joyce, John Donne, and Alexander Pope have all punned in their lifetimes.
The British poet and humorist Thomas Hood could pun until the cows came home. Here’s an excerpt of the kind of thing he used to write, taken from his poem Faithless Sally Brown:
His death, which happen’d in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll’d the bell.
And here’s another example of his pungent wit:
Don’t go to weep upon my grave,
And think that there I be.
They haven’t left an atom there
Of my anatomie.
Puns are Cleverly Constructed
One of the best examples of punning in literature occurs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where Lewis Carroll has the characters speak the following:
“And how many hours a day did you do lessons?” said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.
“Ten hours the first day,” said the Mock Turtle, “nine the next, and so on.”
“What a curious plan!” exclaimed Alice.
“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.”
Puns can often elicit groaning noises from the audience, and yet those that groan are also usually smiling. That’s the power of the pun: it’s amusing without being offensive, funny without necessarily being hilarious, and memorable if done cleverly enough:
- Cole’s Law: thinly sliced cabbage.
- Quantum mechanics: the dreams stuff is made of.
- A hangover: the wrath of grapes.
- A tailor: the man that maketh the clothes.
- Colonoscopy: the other-end-oscopy.
Puns are Everywhere
A good pun is its own reword, like this one found online:
Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, but when they lit a fire in the craft it sank, proving once and for all that you can't have your kayak and heat it, too.
You'll find plenty of puns tucked away in your Christmas cracker, and it's not uncommon to find a pun-infested headline or two in your daily newspaper, like these classic examples, which may or may not have been deliberate:
- Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery: Hundreds Dead
- Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
- Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
Pun Just for Fun
Shakespeare is believed to have used somewhere in the region of 3000 puns in his plays. But if puns truly occupy such a low rung on the comedy ladder, why would the great Bard have bothered?
The answer lies in the definition of the word “pun” itself. A pun is, after all, a play on words. So the better you are at “playing with words” the easier you’ll find it to “pun” and the more “pun” you can have.
Puns are usually deliberate, so naturally you have to know what you’re doing. For instance, if you write your own plays-on-words in your own house, perhaps while sitting in front of a roaring fire, does that make them “homes-pun?”
Here’s a superb example to finish with, written by Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless, of course, you play bass.”
Interestingly, it would seem that a feather can tickle the intellect after all.