Definition of Pun

A pun is a play on words which usually hinges on a word with more than one meaning or the substitution of a homonym that changes the meaning of the sentence for humorous or rhetorical effect. For example, here’s a well-known pun: “Corduroy pillows are making headlines.” The word “headlines” usually refers to something that is new and popular, but this pun changes the meaning in that after having slept on a corduroy pillow, a person would wake up with lines on their heads. Another well-known pun is, “When a vulture flies he takes carrion luggage.” In this pun, the words “carrion” and “carry on” are homonyms; humans take “carry on” luggage when we fly on planes, while vultures eat “carrion” and may take it with them when they fly.

Another word for pun is paronomasia, which comes from the Greek word paronomazein, which meant, “to make a change in naming.”

Types of Puns

There are several different types of puns. Here are some of the different classifications of puns:

  • Homophonic pun: This type of pun uses homonyms (words that sound the same) with different meanings. For example: “The wedding was so emotional that even the cake was in tiers.” The professor Walter Redfern said of this type of pun, “To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms.”
  • Homographic pun: This type of pun uses words that are spelled the same but sound different. These puns are often written rather than spoken, as they briefly trick the reader into reading the “wrong” sound. For example, “You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless you play bass.” In this case, “tuna fish” is a homophonic pun because it is a homonym for “tune a.” The word “bass,” though, functions as a homographic pun in that the word “bass” pronounced with a long “a” refers to a type of instrument while “bass” pronounced with a short “a” is a type of fish.
  • Homonymic pun: A homonymic pun contains aspects of both the homophonic pun and the homographic pun. In this type of pun, the wordplay involves a word that is spelled and sounds the same, yet has different meanings. For example, “Two silk worms had a race and ended in a tie.” A “tie” can of course either be when neither party wins, but in this pun also refers to the piece of clothing usually made from silk.
  • Compound pun: A compound pun includes more than one pun. Here is a famous compound pun from English rhetorician and theologian Richard Whately: “Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But what brought the sandwiches there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred.” There are several separate puns, including the pun on “sand which” and “sandwich,” as well as “Ham” (a Biblical figure) and “ham” and the homophonic puns on “mustered”/“mustard” and “bred”/“bread.”
  • Recursive pun: This type of pun requires understanding the first half of the joke to understand the second. For example, “A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother.” The term “Freudian slip” was coined by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to refer to a mistake in speaking where one word is replaced with another. Freud proposed that these mistakes hinted at unconscious or repressed desires. He also had several theories about the relationship between children (especially boys) and their mothers. Therefore, this pun requires knowledge of Freud’s theories and recognition that the pun itself is a Freudian slip with the substitution of “your mother” for “another.”

Difference Between Pun and Joke

While they share much in common, puns and jokes are not synonymous. The definition of pun is such that it necessitates wordplay. A joke may contain this type of wordplay, but there are a great many jokes that do not have any plays on words. Also, some puns are not humorous and used for rhetorical, rather than humorous, effect.

Common Examples of Pun

There are thousands of common puns in English; many languages have their own puns as well. Puns are quite frequent in every day language. You may have heard or used the following ones in regular conversations:

  • Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
  • Make like a tree and leave.
  • Put that down, it’s nacho cheese.

Some businesses have puns in their names. For example:

  • Hairdressing salon: Curl Up and Dye
  • Lawyers office: Dewey, Cheatum, and Howe
  • Ophthalmologist: For Eyes

What Does “No Pun Intended” Mean?

The phrase “no pun intended” is quite common. People say this when they unintentionally say something that could be construed as a pun, but in fact they don’t mean to make light of the situation. Consider the following situations:

  • A window breaks and someone cuts his finger. When telling his friend about this later, she says, “Wow, that sounds painful. No pun intended.” This is because “pain” is a homonym for “pane,” which could refer to the window pane. However, the friend did not mean to tease him about his cut.
  • In a geometry lesson, a student notices an error that the teacher has made on the board. The teacher says, “Good point. No pun intended.” This could be construed as a pun because “point” is a mathematical term, but the teacher was just congratulating the student, not trying to make a pun.
  • A band breaks up and when explaining why, the lead singer says, “We’d hit a low note. No pun intended.” The “low note” here acts as a cliche for something being bad, yet could be taken literally since the band makes music together. The singer makes clear, however, that she means “low note” in the figurative sense.

Significance of Pun in Literature

Some people consider puns to be quite foolish and worthy only of eye-rolls or groans. However, puns can require a good deal of knowledge on the part of the audience (especially in recursive puns, as explained above). If the puns are particularly clever they are rewarding for the reader or listener when they decipher the pun. Many famous authors used puns to great effect, perhaps none more so than William Shakespeare. Shakespeare used language with such dexterity that his puns often delight and surprise the reader.

Examples of Pun in Literature

Example #1

I will speak to this fellow.—Whose grave’s this, sirrah?
Mine, sir.
I think it be thine, indeed, for thou liest in ’t.
You lie out on ’t, sir, and therefore it is not yours. For my part, I do not lie in ’t, and yet it is mine.
Thou dost lie in ’t, to be in ’t and say it is thine. ‘Tis for the dead, not for the quick. Therefore thou liest.
‘Tis a quick lie, sir. ‘Twill away gain from me to you.

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare used hundreds of puns in his plays and sonnets. They indicate a cleverness of thought on the part of the speaker; Hamlet being perhaps the cleverest character in all of Shakespeare’s works, it is not surprise that he uses many throughout the play. Hamlet encounters a gravedigger in this pun example and the two of them have a witty back-and-forth using the two meanings of the word “lie.” They pun on the idea of the gravedigger resting horizontally in the grave versus the gravedigger fabricating the story of the grave being his own.

Example #2

CECILY: You must not laugh at me, darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one whose name was Ernest.
[ALGERNON rises, CECILY also.]
There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.

(The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)

Oscar Wilde used many examples of puns in his works, though he was also once quoted as having said, “Puns are the lowest form of humor.” His entire play The Importance of Being Earnest hinges on a homophonic pun. “Earnest” functions both as a name and as a quality. The quote from Cecily perfectly sums up the dual meanings. Cecily says she wants to marry a man named “Ernest” because its homonym, “earnest,” inspires confidence. Cecily mistakenly believes that the character of Algernon is named “Ernest,” which is one of the primary reasons that she loves and wants to marry him.

Example #3

[Alice:] ‘You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis–‘
‘Talking of axes,’ said the Duchess, ‘chop off her head!’

(Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)

Lewis Carroll was yet another author who was a fan of using puns in his work. In this example of pun, Alice is trying to impress the Duchess with her worldly knowledge. When she uses the word “axis,” though, the Duchess makes the homophonic connection to “axes” and calls for Alice’s execution.

Test Your Knowledge of Pun

1. Choose the correct pun definition from the following statements:
A. A very funny statement.
B. A joke which can only be understood when written, not heard.
C. A form of wordplay using similar sounding words.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following pun:
One grasshopper told another about eating corn. It went in one ear and out the other.
Which type of pun is this?

A. Recursive
B. Homonymic
C. Compound
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. This pun hinges on the two meanings of “ear.”[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet contains a pun?


ROMEO: Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles. I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.


ROMEO: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.


JULIET: O Romeo, Romeo,
wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]Answer: A is the correct answer. Romeo uses a homophonic pun on the repetition of the word “sole” and “soul,” comparing the two terms as though they were synonymous.[/spoiler]