(1) An expression that achieves emphasis or humor by contriving an ambiguity, two distinct meanings being suggested either by the same word (polysemy) or by two similar-sounding words (homophone) (Baldick 209). (2) The conflating of homonyms and near-homonyms to produce a humorous effect, or a comparable play on words and phrases with similar sounds, sometimes requiring the [often forced] adaptation of one word or phrase to fit the other (McArthur 822). (3) A word play based on simliarity of sound but difference in meaning between words; paranomasia; a play on words (Glazier 526).
In ancient times, puns were used to suggest deep truths, especially in oral societies, where sound was power. In Hebrew, the similarity of the word for man and earth strengthened a belief that humanity was formed from clay. Such puns, however, are often lost in translation (McArthur 822).
In drama and poetry, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, puns were common among dramatists and writers, such as in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio is dying and says "Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man." In modern English usage, we are apt to be jarred by the readiness of Shakespeare's time, yet few moments were unsuitable. The poet John Donne sustained the religious pun when he wrote in Hymn to God the Father: "Thy Son shall shine as he shines now" (McArthur 823).
In the terminology of rhetoric, punning is regarded as a figure of speech and known as paranomasia (Baldick 209).
- Is life worth living? - It depends on the liver (McArthur 822).
- At his funeral, four of his drinking companions carried the bier (McArthur 822).
For further reading, see also double entendre and/or equivoque.
- Baldick, Chris. "Pun." Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004. 209.
- McArthur, Tom. "Puns." The Oxford Companion to the English Language. New York: Oxford University. 1992. 822-823.
- Glazier, Stephen. "Pun." Random House Word Menu. New York: Random House Publishing. 1997. 526.