A pun (or paronomasia) is a phrase that deliberately exploits confusion between similar-sounding words for humorous or rhetorical effect.
A pun may also cause confusion between two senses of the same written or spoken word, due to homophony, homography, homonymy, polysemy, or metaphorical usage. Walter Redfern has said: "To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms". Another definition has said that a pun is a word that has two sources used simultaneously (example origin). For example, in the phrase, "There is nothing punny about bad puns", the pun takes place in the deliberate confusion of the implied word "funny" by the substitution of the word "punny", a heterophone of "funny". By definition, puns must be deliberate; an involuntary substitution of similar words is called a malapropism.
Puns are a form of word play, and can occur in all natural languages.
The word pun
itself is thought to be originally a contraction of the (now archaic) pundigrion
. This Latin term is thought to have originated from punctilious
, which itself derived from the Italian puntiglio
(originally meaning "a fine point"), 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 perfect pun exploits word pairs that sound exactly alike (perfect homophones), or two senses of the same word:
- *"Being in politics is just like playing golf: you are trapped in one bad lie after another."
- (Pun on the two meanings of lie - "a deliberate untruth"/"the position in which something rests").
- If the two words sound similar, but not identical, the pun is said to be imperfect.
- "Why do we still have a troop presence in Germany? Answer: To keep the Slovaks in Czech."
- (This pun deliberately confuses the words Check and Czech for a rhetorical and a comedic effect.)
- A homographic pun exploits different words (or word meanings) which are spelled the same way, whether they have the same sound or not:
- *"Q: What instrument do fish like to play? A: A bass guitar."
- (Pun on the identical spelling of /beɪs/ (low frequency), and /bæs/ (a kind of fish)).
- Homographic puns using words with same spelling but different pronunciations, like this example, are said to be heteronymic.
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:
- *"A man bought a cattle ranch for his sons and named it the 'Focus Ranch' because it was where the sons raise meat."
- (Pun on "where the sun's rays meet").
- *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: Q: "Eskimo Christians Italian who?" A: "Eskimo Christians Italian no lies."
- (Pun on the stock phrase "Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies".)
- An extended pun or pun sequence is a long utterance that contains multiple puns with a common theme:
- *"A fight broke out in a kitchen. Egged on by the waiters, two cooks peppered each other with punches. One man, a greasy foie gras specialist, ducked the first blows, but his goose was cooked when the other cold-cocked him. The man who beet him, a weedy salad expert with big cauliflower ears, tried to flee the scene, but was cornered in the maize of tables by a husky off-duty cob. He was charged with a salt and buttery. He claims to look forward to the suit, as he's always wanted to be a sous-chef."
- (Egged: to throw eggs at, to cheer-on. Peppered: to add pepper to, to punch. Duck: a bird, to bend down. Beet (the vegetable) a play on beat (to win). Weedy: having a lot of vegetables, being skinny. Maize: play on maze. A salt: play on assault. Suit: lawsuit, clothes. Sous-chef: an assistant chef, playing on the verb sue.)
- *"I moss say I'm taking a lichen to that fun-gi, even though his jokes are in spore taste. Algae the first to say that they mushroom out of control."
- (Moss, play on must. Lichen, play on liking. Fungi, play on fun guy. Spore, play on poor. Algae, play on I'll be. Mushroom, play on double meaning: the food, and to grow rapidly.)
Comedy and jokes
Puns are a common source of humor
and comedy shows
. They are often used in the punchline
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 is at least five decades older):
- 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
Puns are particularly admired in Britain, and form a core element of the British cult comedy show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and in times past My Word. The late Richard Whiteley was famed for his endearingly clumsy use of puns as host of the UK words and numbers game show Countdown. British stand up comedian Tim Vine's act is characterised by rapid delivery of unrelated pun-based jokes. British comedian Dance Drier is also known for his extensive and often many layered puns woven into his stories. In his own words, "A pun is its own reword."
Gag names based on puns (such as calling a character who is always almost late Justin Thyme) can be found in Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, The Eyre Affair, Asterix, Hamlet, The Simpsons, the Carmen Sandiego computer games, and many works of Spider Robinson, including the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon series.
Formats for punning
There are numerous pun formats:
The term punning
is sometimes used to describe either unintentional muddled thinking or intentional deception where the same word (such as a homographic pun) is used with two subtly different meanings. For example, in statistics the word significant
is usually assumed to be a shortened form of "statistically significant
", with the associated precisely defined meaning. It is punning to use significant
with the meaning "of practical significance" in contexts where "statistically significant" would be plausible interpretation.
A programming technique that subverts or circumvents the type system
of a programming language
in order to achieve an effect that would be difficult or impossible to achieve within the bounds of the formal language is commonly known as "type punning
" in computer science
- "A pun is a shift of wit. A fart is a whift of shit."
- "A pun is its own reword." — Dance Drier, British comedian
- "A pun is the lowest form of humor, unless you thought of it yourself." — Doug Larson
- "A pun is the shortest distance between two straight lines." — original source unknown
- "As different as York from Leeds" — James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, a play on "As different as chalk from cheese".
- "Blunt and I made atrocious puns. I believe, indeed, that Miss Blunt herself made a little punkin, as I called it" —Henry James
- "Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted." — Fred Allen
- "Heralds don't pun; they cant." SCA heralds' expression
- "If puns are the lowest form of wit, are buns the lowest form of wheat?" — Piers Anthony, Author
- "Immanuel doesn't pun; he Kant." — Oscar Wilde
- "In the beginning was the pun." — Samuel Beckett, Murphy
- "Paris of Troy was so named because his mother had a considerable amount of gaul and married a Frenchman." — Original Source Unknown.
- "Pun (n.): the lowest form of humour" —Samuel Johnson, lexicographer
- "Puns are the last refuge of the witless." —another way of stating the above
- "The goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability." — Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia, 1849
- "'The man', says Johnson, 'that would make / A pun, would pick a pocket!'" ." — Lewis Carroll, "Phantasmagoria", 1869
- "The pun is mightier than the word." — original source unknown, a play on "A pen is mightier than a sword".
- "95% words in the English language can be incorporated into word-play (while the other 5% can be ex-pun-ged as im-pun-etrable)" — Wayne Redhart (spoof top 500 reviewer on amazon.co.uk)
- "You can tune a guitar, but you can't tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass." —Douglas Adams
- Baloo (a bear): "look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities....". —The Jungle Book (1967 film)
- Explorer: Then one afternoon I bagged six tigers. Six of the biggest tigers I ever saw.
Hostess: You captured six tigers?
Explorer: I bagged them. I bagged them and bagged them to go away, but they hung around all afternoon. They were the most persistent tigers I ever saw. —Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont, Animal Crackers
- Max: I like your nurse's uniform, guy.
Peter: Actually these are O.R. scrubs.
Max: Oh, are they? —Rushmore
- Scholar 1 [to scholar 2];"Have you read Marx?"
Scholar 2;" Indeed I have my good sir, I believe they are from these cane chairs."
- Hempelmann, Christian F. (2004). "Script opposition and logical mechanism in punning". HUMOR - Journal of the International Association for Humor Studies 17 (4): 381–392. (Access to the full text may be restricted.)
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.