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A pun, or paronomasia, is a form of word play that deliberately exploits ambiguity between similar-sounding words for humorous or rhetorical effect. Such ambiguity may arise from the intentional misuse of homophonical, homographical, homonymic, polysemic, metonymic , or metaphorical language.

By definition, puns must be deliberate; an involuntary substitution of similar words is called a malapropism.

Samuel Johnson disparagingly referred to punning as "the lowest form of humour". Punning has been used by writers such as Alexander Pope, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare (who is estimated to have used over 3,000 puns in his plays), John Donne, and Lewis Carroll.


According to Walter Redfern, "To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms". Henri Bergson (in translation) 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". Richard J. Alexander outlined the three forms which puns may take: as graphological puns, such as Concrete poetry; as phonological puns, such as homophonic puns; and as morphological puns, such as portmanteaus.


The word pun has been used in English at least since 1550. It is thought to be originally a contraction of the (now archaic) pundigrion. This term is thought to have originated from punctilious, which itself derived from the Italian puntiglio, diminutive of punto, "point", from the Latin punctus, past participle of pungere, "to prick". These etymological sources are reported in the Oxford English Dictionary, which labels them "conjecture".


Puns can be classified in various ways. A homophonic pun exploits word pairs that sound alike (homophones), but are not synonymous. For example, the statement "Atheism is a non-prophet institution" (made by George Carlin) substitutes the word "prophet" for its homophone "profit" in the common phrase "non-profit institution". Similarly, the joke "Question: Why do we still have troops in Germanymarker? Answer: To keep the Slovaks in Czech" relies on the disparity of meaning between the non-synonymous but similar sounding words "check" and "Czech".

A homographic pun exploits different words (or word meanings) which are spelled the same way, but possess different meanings. For example, 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 example which uses both 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 exploits the homophonic qualities of "tune a" and "tuna", as well as the homographic pun on "bass", in which ambiguity is reached through the identical spelling of (a string instrument), and (a kind of fish). Homographic puns using words with the same spelling but different pronunciations, like "bass" above, are said to be heteronymic puns. Homographic puns are sometimes compared to the stylistic device antanaclasis, and homophonic puns to polyptoton; but these concepts are not identical.

A compound pun is a sentence that contains two or more puns, such as: "A man bought a cattle ranch for his sons and named it the 'Focus Ranch' because it was where the sons raise meat", punning on the phonological similarity to "where the sun's rays meet". Other examples might include: "Sign in a golf-cart shop: "When drinking, don't drive. Don't even putt."" (Puns on "driving" and "putting" a golf ball, vs. "driving" a car or "putting" around in a golf cart); Punch line of a knock knock joke: Question: "Eskimo Christians who?" Answer: "Eskimo Christians Italian no lies." (Pun on the stock phrase "Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies".)

A recursive pun is a sentence that contains a pun that refers to the similar sounding word: , for example the statement "π is only half a pie." (Half a circle is 180 degrees or π radians, and a pie is circular).

Formats for punning

There are numerous pun formats:


Comedy and jokes

Puns are a common source of humor 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):
: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?"
The last line uses a pun on the stock phrase "the lesser of two evils".


Examples of puns are found in the Bible (in both the Old and the New Testaments). A well-known example is found in the Matthew 16.18:
*"Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church."
:(In the Greek text, a play on the word "rock" (πετρα, petra) and the name "Peter" (πετρος, petros), which also means "stone".)
:(works in French : "Tu est Pierre, et sur cette pierre je bâtirai mon Église")

Puns on the names of pharaohs of Egyptmarker, found in Biblical literature, have been used to date historical events .

Non-humorous puns were and are a standard rhetorical or 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, and Robert Bloch. 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: play on "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."

In the poem A Hymn to God the Father, John Donne, married to Anne More, puns repeatedly on his own name (which is pronounced "Dun"). The verses
*"When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done / For I have more."
can be interpreted as "God, when you have forgiven me this much, you are not finished/you do not have John Donne (safe yet), for I have more sins to confess." In the third stanza, having received assurance, counteracting his fears,
*"that at my death Thy Son / Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore"
(another Son/sun pun), he ends the poem
*"And having done that, Thou hast done; / I fear no more."

Here are some additional examples:
* "As different as York from Leeds" — James Joyce in Finnegans Wake
:(A play on the idiomatic expression "As different as chalk from cheese".)

On the other hand, puns are despised by some authors and critics as being too "vulgar" or "childish". For example, Samuel Johnson once gave the definition "Pun (n.): the lowest form of humour".

Also, some puns in Literature take the form of place names or character's names. For example in the Harry Potter series, the alleyways with the names "Diagon Alley" and "Knockturn Alley" are puns for "Diagonally" and Nocturnally", respectively. Multiple puns like these can be found everywhere in literature.


Puns are often used in advertisement as an attention-getting device:
*"Thanks for the brake", a sign on the back of buses in the Denver Regional Transportation District and in certain cities in British Columbiamarker (Such as Victoriamarker and Nanaimomarker)
:(Brake: pun on "break")

Acronyms and codes

*K-9, a designation for military dogs or police dogs
:(A play on "canine", patterned after other military codes such as G-2.)

Lexicon and names

*"Funny bone" is the popular name for a sensitive exposed nerve located where it joins at the elbow.
:(Robert Hendrickson believes the name is due to an intentional or accidental confusion between "humerus" and "humorous".)

Visual puns

Visual puns, where one of the confounding words is replaced by a picture, are the basis of many logos, emblems, insignia, and other graphic symbols:

* The U.S. 4th Infantry Division patch has four ivy leaves on it
:(Play on the Roman numeral for 4, IV).
* The Germanmarker Flakgruppe Wachtel suggested as an emblem "W/8"
:(Play on the German word achtel, meaning "eighth".)

In European heraldry, this technique is called canting arms. Visual puns are also common in Dutch gable stones as well as in certain cartoons such as Lost Consonants or The Far Side.


The term punning is sometimes used in science to describe either unintentional muddled thinking or intentional deception where the same word is used with two subtly different meanings. 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 meaning "of practical significance" in such contexts would be a case of "punning" in this sense.

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.

Puns about puns

Puns and punning have often been the subject of puns:

* "There is nothing punny about bad puns." — original source unknown.
:(Punny: play on "funny", in the idiomatic phrase "There is nothing funny about…".)
* "The pun is mightier than the word." — original source unknown
:(Pun and word: plays on "pen" and "sword", in the saying "The pen is mightier than the sword".)
* "A pun is its own reword." — Dance Drier, British comedian
:(Reword: pun on "reward", from the saying "Virtue is its own reward".)
* "Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted." — Fred Allen
:(Quoted: pun on "quartered", an old form of capital punishment.)
* "Immanuel doesn't pun; he Kant." — Oscar Wilde
:(Kant: play on "can't", in the name of philosopher Immanuel Kant)

non-phonetic Puns

In languages using non-phonetic writing, such as Chinese, a pun may be based on a similarity in shape of the written character, even though there may be no phonetic similarity between the words punned upon. "Alleton (1970) gives examples of puns based on the shape of the characters used."

Another "peculiarly Chinese form of visual punning involved comparing written characters to objects. ... Knowledge of both the script and of traditional technology is needed to be amused".

See also


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved 7 February 2009
  2. Puns, Blackwell, London, 1984
  3. quoted in Augarde, Tony. The Oxford Guide to Word Games, p.205
  4. Alexander, Richard J. Aspects of verbal humour in English, pp.21-41
  5. Charles Hockett, Cornell linguist
  6. Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare.
  7. Salvatore Attardo : Linguistic Theories of Humor. Walter de Gruyter, 1994. ISBN 3110142554. p. 109 Alleton, V. : L'écriture chinoise. Paris, 1970.
  8. 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. Chinese University Press, 1991. ISBN 9622014364. pp. 101-118.


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