Word Play

Definition of Word Play

Word play is a literary device, used as a form of wit. In this device, words are used in such a way that they become the main subject of conversation for entertainment and amusement. There are different types of wordplays. It is also called play upon words or play-on-words. Different dictionaries define word play as the exploitation of wit through changing places, contexts, and uses of a word in a way that creates laughter. Word play is also used as a compound word as well as a hyphen such as word-play is hyphenated and wordplay is a compound word. In both cases, it is correct. For example, Merriam-Webster defines this word as “the witty exploitation of meanings and ambiguities of words, especially in puns.” It also states that the word is used as a noun in the sense of cutting jokes.

Types of Word Play

Some of the best word plays include;

  1. Pun
  2. Alliteration
  3. Ambigrams
  4. Palindrome
  5. Spoonerism
  6. Oxymoron
  7. Anagrams
  8. Pangrams
  9. Tongue twisters

Examples of Word Play in Literature

Example #1

Summer Moonshine by P. G. Wodehouse

“A certain critic — for such men, I regret to say, do exist — made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.’ He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.”

Although Wodehouse has not used puns, his use of Wodehouse characters, the same names, and specifically, out-generalled show his wit. All these words have been placed at the most suitable places and in the most suitable contexts to cause laughter among his readers. They show how Wodehouse plays with words to amuse his readers.

Example #2

Julius Caesar from William Shakespeare

It would become me better than to close
In terms of friendship with thine enemies.
Pardon me, Julius! Here wast thou bayed, brave hart;
Here didst thou fall; and here thy hunters stand,
Signed in thy spoil, and crimsoned in thy Lethe.
O world, thou wast the forest to this hart,
And this indeed, O world, the heart of thee!
How like a deer, strucken by many princes,
Dost thou here lie!

Master of word play, Shakespeare has beautifully used the words hart, forest, and deer to show that Antony is playing upon words. He has two objects; first to save himself from the enemies of Caesar so that he could exact revenge later, and second to show the people how the rebels have killed Caesar. Readers can easily spot the use of heart and heart in the last three lines full of irony and sarcasm only because of this wordplay.

Example #3

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here
stands the man; good; if the man go to this water,
and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he
goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him
and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he
that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

Although Hamlet is full of puns, these lines uttered by the First Clown show that Shakespeare is at his best when it comes to word play. If you read carefully, you find that the clown has used will, nill, good, water, drown, life, and death in a way that they all seem to contain some metaphysical quibblings and questions that are very hard to answer. In a way, they are also amusing that such a person could use words in such a way that they create serious concern as well as laughter.

Example #4

Rhyme PUNishment from Adventures Word Play by Brian P. Clearly

“Jamaica Sandwich?” Grandma asked,
and I replied, “I ate
some Chile from a China bowl
and Turkey from a plate.

Although these four verses by Brian Clearly show the use of different words in a different way, they also show a very interesting truth about different countries how they are named after things and things are named after them. He has used Jamaica, Chile, China, and Turkey for sandwiches, chili, and turkey for foods commonly known and used in the United States as well as across the globe. This is a beautiful wordplay. In fact, this entire book of Brian Clearly comprises different word plays.

Functions of Word Play

Based on different types, a word-play plays different functions. The first function is to create a sort of joke or fun for the readers so that they should enjoy reading such as Wodehouse has shown, using a portmanteau, out-generalled. The second purpose is to create ambiguity to make people feel that the person is different from what he is speaking. Shakespeare has done the same thing in his play, Julius Caesar. The third is to present some universal truths or metaphysical dilemmas to the public to think deeply such as stated by the clown of Hamlet. The fourth is to make children and people have deeper meanings than are universally accepted in some other way. Brian Clearly has done this in his poetry.


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