The Ancient Humour of Puns

Updated on November 28, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Hot dog.
Hot dog. | Source

The pun has an ancient pedigree, turning up in Egypt, China, and Iraq long before the Christian era. Roman orators Cicero, Quintilian, and others peppered their speeches with puns, believing them to be signs of a nimble mind. And, didn’t Jesus himself create a pun when he said of his disciple Peter “Upon this rock I will build my church?” Peter’s name is derived from the ancient Greek word “petros” meaning “stone or rock.”

“The pun,” as one large cat said to the other, “is the lowest form of puma.” (Culprit unknown).

The Much-Derided Pun

Sophisticated critics have trash-talked the humble pun for centuries. A Roman emperor expressed his distaste for this form of wordplay. Joseph Tartakovsky (New York Times) writes that “It is said that Caligula ordered an actor to be roasted alive for a bad pun. (Some believe he was inclined to extremes.)”

The poet John Dryden pronounced that the pun was the “lowest and most grovelling kind of wit.”


During the Enlightenment, the pun fell into disfavour. The silliness and lack of precision central to this form of humour clashed with the discipline of intellectual enquiry that characterized the epoch. However, we can be sure puns still enjoyed wide popularity in taverns, especially if they contained bawdy elements.

18th century essayist Joseph Addison huffed that it was a good thing that “Arrant puns” had been “banished out of the learned world.” A couple of centuries later, the American writer Ambrose Bierce skewered the pun as a “form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.”

A Complex Form

Is the oft-quoted disdain simply jealousy on the part of those who quietly think, “Rats. I wish I’d thought of that?”

John Pollack is a bit of an expert on the form having written a book entitled The Pun also Rises. He told National Public Radio “The brain goes through some incredible gymnastics to capture the meaning of puns. And if you think about it, it’s incredibly complex. Especially when two words can sound exactly alike.”

The folks who run Pun of the Day suggest “It is this envy in adults that subconsciously causes them to groan upon hearing a pun. As time goes on, it can only be hoped that we adults will eventually learn to react more like a child and less like a groan-up!”

“You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.” (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

Headline writers, particularly in the tabloid press, are pun devotees. Vincent Musetto of The New York Post was a master practitioner. After a particularly grisly murder in a Queens tavern he wrote “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” The same paper skewered musician Ike Turner on the occasion of his passing, leaving his widow Tina to whom he had been physically abusive. The headline on the obituary was “Ike Turner Beats Tina to Death.”

But, the gold medal must surely go to the anonymous genius who wrote about the declining health of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 - “The Reign in Spain is Plainly on the Wane.” Versions of this have since been shamelessly ripped off to describe the declining popularity of King Juan Carlos and the fall from dominance of the Spanish soccer team.


“What does Karl Marx put on his pasta? Communist Manipesto” (Stephen Colbert).

The Technicalities of the Pun

According to the Oxford Guide to Word Games, the French philosopher Henri Bergson described puns as a phrase in which “two different sets of ideas are expressed, and we are confronted with only one series of words.”

Webster says a pun is “the humorous use of a word, or of words, which are formed or sounded alike but have different meanings, in such a way as to play on two or more of the possible applications; a play on words.”

Sigmund Freud, who had a way of taking the fun out of many things by overanalyzing them, opined that punning was a sign of weakness. The punster, he said, creates a humorous play on words as a way of avoiding having to deal with unpleasant truths.

Lighten up, Siggy.


Puns Are Studied by Academics

The technical term for creating puns is paronomasia. It falls into one of the more esoteric areas of scholarship; this is the study of names, or onomastics. There is a Canadian Society for the Study of Names and an official journal - Onomastica Canadiana.

Serious stuff, but made lighter by retired university librarian Lynn Westney from Chicago. Writing in The Globe and Mail Nick Taylor-Vaisy notes that “she presented the paper ‘Dew Drop Inn and Lettuce Entertain You: Onomastic Sobriquets in the Food and Beverage Industry’ to naming societies in 2001.”

She gave examples of the word contortions used by many business owners intent on setting their enterprise apart from competitors. Carl’s Pane in the Glass (Garland, Texas), Florist Gump (Bunbury, Western Australia), and Cycloanalysts (Oxford, England) might be candidates.


Authors Love Using Puns

Oscar Wilde was an incurable punster; the very title of one of his most famous plays, The Importance of Being Earnest, is a pun itself as are many of the lines in it. Wilde also wrote that “Immanuel doesn’t pun, he Kant,” and “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

Shakespeare is said to have included more than 500 puns in his work. Here are a couple of examples:

  • From Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” (A play on son and sun).
  • In Romeo and Juliet, as Mercutio is dying he says, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”

Not exactly thigh-slappers.

Many of Shakespeare’s puns were coarsely vulgar, but today they sail over our heads unnoticed because they only work if spoken in an Elizabethan accent, which is quite different from modern pronunciation.

For those with a taste for more, The Public Broadcasting System even has a course “The Punny Language of Shakespeare” to help untangle the bard’s poetry.

“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” (Nameless Offender).

“I couldn’t quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me” (Mickey’s brother Anonymous).


The World’s Best Puns

For some, no pun is a good pun and choosing the best ones is entirely subjective.

However, there are some classics:

  • U.S. President Harry Truman used to invite people to his home state to sample his wife’s cooking, adding that “Missouri loves company.”
  • Dorothy Parker was challenged to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence and came up with “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”
  • In Animal Crackers (1930) Groucho Marx said, … “we tried to remove the (elephant) tusks. But they were embedded so firmly we couldn’t budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.”

Edgar Allen Poe gets the last word: “Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are those who are least able to utter them.”

I sent ten different puns to friends, with the hope that at least one of them would make them laugh. Sadly, no pun in ten did. (Unrevealed villain).


Bonus Factoids

A Buddhist monk refused Novocain during a root canal. He wanted to transcend dental medication.

A group of chess players spent an hour in a hotel lobby bragging about their victories when the manager asked them to disperse because he did not want chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.

A vulture got onto an airliner dragging two dead raccoons. The flight attendant stopped him saying “I’m sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.”



  • “The Pun Conundrum.” BBC News Magazine, January 16, 2013.
  • “Pun for the Ages.” Joseph Tartakovsky, New York Times, March 28, 2009.
  • “Dew Drop Inn and Lettuce Entertain You: a Scholarly Look at Restaurant Names with Puns.” Nick Taylor-Vaisey, Globe and Mail, August 23, 2012.
  • “Canadian Society for the Study of Names.”
  • “Oh the Humanities: Restaurants that Have Pun with their Names.” Mary Vallis, National Post, June 5, 2010.
  • “The 47 Greatest Pun-tastic Restaurant Names.” Danielle Dauenhauer, Ranker, undated.
  • “The Punny Language of Shakespeare.” Jan Madden, PBS, undated

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image

      Vern Wall 

      24 months ago

      "Petros" means a little stone, small enough to be thrown about. Peter was a flake, not suitable for the foundation of anything. This is the guy who was unhinged by the questions from a maid when Jesus was arrested. "Petra" is a big stone, big enough to serve as the foundation of a building. Jesus pointed to Peter and said "Thou art Petros," and then pointed back at himself and said "but upon this PETRA I will build my church."

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      2 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Marvelous, Rupert! (Spoken . . . er, written by a lifelong fan of puns. I never went through a phase where I found them a lower form of wit--thank goodness!)

      In fact, I told a long one to the late humorist Hubber B.J. Rakow, who published a number of puns on this site, one of which she translated into verse from my (purloined) punny story. Though, sadly, BJ is no longer with us (writing as drbj), her daughter Sherry maintains her hubs. You can find the one I inspired here:

      I hope you will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed your hub about puns. Regards, Jaye


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)