Definition of Pun
A pun is a literary device that is also known as a “play on words.” Puns involve words with similar or identical sounds but with different meanings. Their play on words also relies on a word or phrase having more than one meaning. Puns are generally intended to be humorous, but they often have a serious purpose as well in literary works.
For example, the if you were to attend a lecture about managing finances entitled “Common Cents,” this features a pun. The play on words is between “cents,” as in coins, and “sense,” as in awareness. This pun is also effective as a play on words of the phrase “common sense,” which is appropriate to the subject of managing finances.
Common Examples of Puns
Here are some examples of puns that may be found in everyday expression:
- Denial is a river in Egypt.
- The cyclist was two tired to win the race.
- Take my wife, please.
- Her cat is near the computer to keep an eye on the mouse.
- When my algebra teacher retired, he wasn’t ready for the aftermath.
- Some bunny loves you.
- Now that I have graph paper, I guess it’s time to plot something.
- Make like a tree and leave.
- This candy cane is in mint condition.
- My librarian is a great bookkeeper.
- This vacuum sucks.
- I like archery, but it’s hard to see the point.
- It’s easy to like musicians because they are very upbeat.
- If you stand by the window, I’ll help you out.
- The population of Ireland is always Dublin.
- It’s difficult for crabs to share because they are shellfish.
- Hand me that newspaper so we don’t have crosswords.
- The skeleton model in our biology class is a bonehead.
- The wedding cake had me in tiers.
- Next year, I’ll spend more thyme growing herbs.
Examples of Puns as Character Names
For example, in an episode of the animated series “The Tick,” one of the villains is named “El Seed.” El Seed is leader of an army that intends to “liberate” the plant population. This is a clever use of pun for a character name, as it is both a play on the word “seed” in relation to plants and a play on the legend of El Cid, a medieval Spanish knight and military warrior.
Here are some other examples of puns as character names:
- Cliff Hanger (adventure character from children’s television series “Between the Lions”)
- Gnomeo and Juliet (animated adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”)
- Harley Quinn (fictional character in DC Comics)
- Truly Scrumptious (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”)
- Kim Possible (heroic character from children’s television series of the same name)
- Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (“Some Like It Hot”)
- Paige Turner (librarian character from children’s television series “Arthur”)
- Alfredo Linguini (chef character in Disney’s “Ratatouille”)
- Holly Golightly (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”)
- Cruella De Vil (“101 Dalmatians”)
Famous Examples of Pun
Here are some famous examples of puns:
- “The road to success is always under construction.” (Lily Tomlin)
- “Atheism is a non-prophet organization.” (George Carlin)
- “I am a very committed wife. And I should be committed too – for being married so many times.” (Elizabeth Taylor)
- “The cafeteria staff requests sidekicks stop ordering hero sandwiches.” (from motion picture “Sky High”)
- “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” (Dorothy Parker)
Difference Between Pun and Joke
It can be difficult for people to distinguish between puns and jokes. This is understandable since they are similar in nature, yet they are not the same. Puns are figures of speech that rely on a form of word play, whereas jokes are narrative structures intended to create humor and laughter.
For example, the structure of a joke is generally dependent upon a “set up” followed by a “punchline.” A punchline delivers the humor of a joke by relieving the tension of the narrative set up through an unlikely or incongruous resolution. This punchline “twist” is intended to induce laughter from an audience.
Here is an example of a well-known joke from the “Monty Python” series:
First Person: “My dog has no nose.”
Second Person: “How does he smell?”
First Person: “Awful!”
The set up for this joke is that a person’s dog is without a nose, creating wonder in the second person (and the audience, vicariously) as to how the dog uses its sense of smell with no nose. Instead, the person with the dog interprets the second person’s question as a query about the quality of smell of the dog itself. The punchline “Awful!” relieves the tension of the narrative in that the question is answered. The punchline is humorous in that the answer is unexpected.
Though both jokes and puns are forms of humor, jokes frequently rely on comedic rhythm and timing. Puns, however, rely on word play and meanings.
Many writers and poets such as John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, and Ambrose Bierce have claimed that puns are the “lowest form” of humor and wit. Those who agree with this sentiment justify it by pointing out that puns are often not genuinely funny and can be grimace inducing for readers. In addition, puns frequently happen by accident when we are speaking, which is why the phrase “no pun intended” is said so often. People tend to consider puns as unnecessary or frivolous.
However, it’s quite challenging to create an effective pun when writing. There are two main reasons for this difficulty:
- First, the reader must understand the “source material” of the pun in order for it to work. This would include understanding different meanings of words or phrases, or recognizing an allusion or reference. For example, Warren Peace is a character name that features a pun. In order for the play on words to be effective with this pun, a reader must be familiar with the source material. In this case, the pun relies on the reader’s prior knowledge of Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel War and Peace. If a reader has no familiarity with Tolstoy’s work, the pun would be an ineffective literary device without meaning.
- The second challenge when it comes to creating an effective pun in writing is adding value for the reader. In other words, when a writer utilizes a pun simply for the sake of incorporating a play on words, this doesn’t enhance literary value or enjoyment for the reader. However, if a writer’s use of word play adds meaning to the text by elevating a sense of comedy, tragedy, or irony, then puns can create value and appreciation among readers.
Here are some reasons that writers incorporate puns into their works:
Evoke Humorous Response
For the most part, writers use puns to evoke a humorous response among their readers. This is due to the ambiguous and/or difference in meanings for certain words and phrases. These differences in meanings may originate from figurative language or use of homophone or homograph.
Puns, when used effectively, can enhance interpretation of literary works. A pun will often cause a reader to think about various meanings of a word or phrase. In turn, this can result in the reader expanding their interpretation of the literary work itself in order to find deeper meanings.
Artistic and Clever Use of Language
Like all figures of speech, puns represent artistic and clever use of language on the part of the writer. However, puns should be used sparingly so as not to overwhelm or disengage a reader. In addition, it’s important for writers to understand that puns are often limited to a particular language and would not necessarily be effective in translation.
Examples of Pun in Literature
A pun can be an effective literary device. Here are some examples of puns in well-known literary works, along with how they add to interpretation:
Example 1: The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)
To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
Wilde was a master of word play, and this line from his play “The Importance of Being Earnest” reflects his dexterity when it comes to pun as a literary device. Of course, Wilde is playing on the dual meaning of “lose.” In its first mention, lose is used in the context of suffering loss through death. In its second mention, lose is used in the context of misplacing something.
There is layered humor provided by the pun in this line. The reader understands that Mr. Worthing has lost one parent to death, and the suggestion that the loss of both his parents is due to misplacement reflects dark humor. In addition, Wilde’s use of the word “carelessness” is clever wording as well. The idea that the speaker is poking fun at death also emphasizes the speaker’s lack of care, and therefore carelessness, with his words.
Example 2: Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)
Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.
William Shakespeare is known for his clever use of puns for comedic effect. Yet he also utilized this literary device as a means of enhancing tragic and ironic circumstances as well. Romeo’s dear friend Mercutio is stabbed by Tybalt, and makes this statement during his death scene. Shakespeare creates a play on the word grave that adds a level of tragedy and sense of irony to Mercutio’s death.
Mercutio’s pun relies on the dual meanings of the word “grave.” As an adjective, grave describes something that is serious or solemn. This meaning fits with Mercutio’s statement, as being stabbed is certainly a grave event. As a noun, grave indicates a place of burial for a dead body and more specifically the area dug in the ground for internment. This meaning also fits with Mercutio’s situation, as his stab wound is fatal. Therefore, Mercutio’s pun is a play on words that enhances what has befallen him as well as the outcome.
Example 3: Pragmatist (Edmund Conti)
Coming our way
Ground zero at noon
Halve a nice day.
In Conti’s poem, the speaker offers a pun based on the word “halve” and its homophone “have” in the last line. Phonetically, the last line reads as “have a nice day.” This cliche is an ironic finish to the poem considering its subject is impending apocalypse and the world’s end. However, the poet’s use of the word “halve” rather than “have” is a clever way of supporting the rest of the poem. If “ground zero” of the apocalypse is “at noon,” then it is only possible to have half of a day. Therefore, “halve” a nice day is a much more accurate, though ironic, end to the poem.
Example 4: Design (Robert Frost)
What had the flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? –
If design govern in a thing so small.
In the last stanza of this poem, Frost uses pun as a figure of speech through the word “design.” Rather than an attempt at humor, the pun in this poem causes the reader to think more deeply about the meaning of design and the meaning of the poem as well. On one level, the poet is questioning the “design of darkness,” meaning its composition and construction. This is paired with the second use of “design” in the context of an intentional or deliberate plan. In other words, the poet wonders whether the natural design (composition) of the relationship between the flower, moth, and spider has resulted in the moth’s death, or whether it is nature’s design (plan) that governs the plight of the moth.
On other levels, the meaning of “design” in the poem might refer to Intelligent Design or the theory of divine presence in nature. Similarly, the word design may reflect the poetic process itself. The poet may also be questioning whether the poem is an artistic composition on its own or if he is the ultimate designer of the poem.