A Guide to English Puns and Wordplay
Here in the UK, we love a good pun.
You’ll probably notice them in tabloid newspaper headlines, but you might also hear them in everyday conversation, emails, social media, television and any number of other situations in which the speaker wishes to present themselves as comical or witty. They’re not the only prevalent form of wordplay you’ll encounter in the English language though; there are plenty more plays on words that contribute to the richness of the spoken and written language. In this article, we start with an introduction to English puns and wordplay and then take you through some of our favourite examples.
What is a pun?
A pun is a form of wordplay that creates humour through the use of a word or series of words that sound the same but that have two or more possible meanings. Puns often make use of homophones – words that sound the same, and are sometimes spelt the same, but have a different meaning. Puns are generally jokes – but not always; we tend to write “no pun intended” in brackets if we’ve inadvertently chosen our words in a way that could be construed as a pun.
As with any kind of comedy, timing is crucial to the telling of a good pun, and if you’re able to think of one on the spot then you’re bound to get a laugh for your ready wit (it won’t look so good if you take several minutes to think of one, by which time the conversation has moved on!). For example, you might be having a conversation about what you had for breakfast, and your friend tells you that they had boiled eggs for breakfast. You could then retort with “were they eggstraordinary?” – accompanied by a cheeky grin in acknowledgement of the poor joke, of course. More subtle and sophisticated puns don’t modify words in this way, but make use of homophones. For example, in a conversation about cooking fish for a dinner party, one might say “do you think we should scale back on the number of guests?” (playing on a fish’s scales and the expression “scale back”, which means to reduce).
Puns have a slightly poor reputation as forms of humour go, and often elicit a groan from the person on the receiving end of one (though that might just be because they wish they’d thought of something that witty to say). They’re generally considered to be a fairly basic form of humour, though they can also be very sophisticated and funny. Shakespeare was famously pretty big on puns; perhaps, it’s recently been suggested, even more so than previously thought; apparently if you read Shakespeare in an Elizabethan accent, you spot many more puns. These days the tabloids are known for their use of puns in headlines; for example, you might see a headline like “Otter Devastation” in an article detailing the decline of the otter (this plays on the similarities between the words “otter” and “utter”).
Other forms of English wordplay
Puns aren’t the only form of English wordplay – they’re just one of the most popular. Here are some of the other kinds of wordplay you might encounter when you’re learning English, whether in everyday conversation, in the newspapers or in works of English literature.
Acronyms involve making a word using the first letters of a series of other words. This type of wordplay is popular in company names. You might not have known, for example, that the popular budget furniture shop IKEA is actually an acronym; it stands for Ingvar Kamprad, Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd. The first two words are the founder’s name, the third the farm on which he spent his childhood, and the fourth his Swedish hometown. “IKEA” has become such a common word in everyday use that very few people know that it stands for something.
We accidentally use spoonerisms all the time, to the point where it’s debateable whether they can legitimately classed as ‘wordplay’, with the connotations of intentional wit that that word entails. A spoonerism – named after a chap named Reverend Spooner, who supposedly fell foul of this slip of the tongue frequently – is when you switch some of the letters between two words. For example, you might say “a slight of fairs” instead of “a flight of stairs”. There’s a joke that relies on Spoonerisms:
Question: Why did the butterfly flutter by?
Answer: Because it saw the dragonfly drink the flagon dry.
While this isn’t exactly a laugh-out-loud witticism, it’s an excellent example of the Spoonerism.
Originally intended to make typing a bit quicker, internet abbreviations have almost become a language in their own right – and some abbreviations have actually entered the spoken English language as well. Perhaps the most famous example is “lol”, which means “laughing out loud”. Some people – particularly among the younger generation – now say “lol” out loud, pronouncing it as “loll” (traditionalists frown upon such behaviour, however, so you’re advised to avoid it if you want to be taken seriously).
Take part of one word and its meaning, and combine it with another word and its meaning, and you have a portmanteau. For example, the word “brunch” is a portmanteau that combines “breakfast” and “lunch” to create a word for a meal one has in between, and often instead of, breakfast and lunch. Portmanteaus are very popular with tacky gossip magazines, who use them to refer to celebrity couples, such as “Brangelina” for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They were actually popularised by Lewis Carroll, who used the word “portmanteau” for the first time in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.
Alliteration and onomatopoeia
Alliteration is when you use two or more words in a row beginning with the same letter or using the same sounds, and it tends to be used for emphasis or to make something more memorable. You might hear it in a brand name – such as the Automobile Association (AA) – or newspaper headlines, such as “Persecuted for Praying”. You’ll also see it used in English literature, particularly poetry, as it can be helpful for emphasising a point or creating a particular sound. For instance, a piece of writing about a snake might use words beginning with or containing the letter ‘s’, because, when spoken aloud, this echoes the sound a snake makes when it hisses: “the sly snake slithered stealthily”. A similar concept in wordplay is onomatopoeia, which is where a word sounds like what it describes. For example, animal noises are usually onomatopoeic, such as “oink” to describe the noise a pig makes, “moo” for a cow, “woof” for a dog, and so on. This type of wordplay is also common in poetry, as it means that the poet can create certain sounds to add meaning to what they are writing; a poem about fireworks, for example, might allude to the sounds a firework makes using onomatopoeic words, such as “bang”, “crash”, “fizz”, “whoosh”, and so on.
Jokes, headlines and other witticisms involving puns and wordplay
Finally, we give you some more examples of how cunning use of words can make great jokes and newspaper headlines. Puns are particularly popular in tabloid newspaper headlines because they are eye-catching and memorable, drawing attention to a story that might otherwise not spark the curiosity of a passerby.
“Why did the scarecrow…”
Question: Why did the scarecrow win a Nobel Prize?
Answer: For being outstanding in his field!
This excellent joke makes use of clever wordplay to great comic effect, centered around the word “outstanding”. Clearly Nobel laureates are outstanding in their field of expertise, but you wouldn’t expect a scarecrow would be – these are, after all, simply effigies put in fields to scare birds away from crops. But the word “outstanding”, when separated into two words, takes on a different meaning: the scarecrow is “out standing in his field”, meaning that he is “outside, standing in his field”.
A Queen-based headline
A newspaper headline did the rounds on social media a while ago for its clever play on lyrics from the song Bohemian Rhapsody by the rock band Queen in a story about hikes in rail prices. This is explained below with the original lyrics included in italics beneath the headline words.
Is this the rail price?
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught up in land buys
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from bureaucracy!
No escape from reality.
This example illustrates an example of witty wordplay that doesn’t involve homophones, and it’s been hailed as headline writing at its very best!
“I wondered why the baseball…”
The joke goes like this: “I was wondering why the baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.” The punchline rests on two meanings of the word “hit”. It can mean physically being hit by something being thrown at you, but it can also mean a thought or realisation suddenly occurring to you.
“Why did the fly fly?”
This one’s a staple of the Christmas cracker and makes use of homophones.
Question: Why did the fly fly?
Answer: Because the spider spied her.
The question exploits two meanings of the word “fly”; it’s a small, irritating buzzing insect, but it’s also a verb – “to fly” – meaning to be airborne. The answer relies on the fact that “spied her” – meaning “saw her” – sounds like “spider”.
“What do you call a small midget fortune teller…”
Here’s a joke that’s both groan-worthy and quite clever wordplay.
Question: What do you call a midget fortune teller who just escaped from prison?
Answer: A small medium at large!
The comedy here hinges on the fact that the answer includes the common sizes of small, medium and large, but they all mean different things. A midget is a small person; another word for a fortune teller is “medium”, as in a psychic medium; and when someone has escaped from prison, they’re described as being “at large”.
“A cigarette lighter”
Three men are on board a boat and they have four cigarettes, but nothing to light them with. What do they do? They throw one overboard… so that they become a cigarette lighter!
The humour here relies on the two different interpretations of “cigarette lighter”. Clearly it’s something used to light a cigarette, but the boat itself can also said to be “a cigarette lighter” in weight, because it has shed the weight of one cigarette.
A long joke to end with
Let’s end with a longer joke that relies on clever wordplay for its punchline. This is a popular joke and comes in a number of versions; this particular rendition comes from here.
“The big chess tournament was taking place at the Plaza in New York. After the first day’s competition, many of the winners were sitting around in the foyer of the hotel talking about their matches and bragging about their wonderful play. After a few drinks they started getting louder and louder until finally, the desk clerk couldn’t take any more and kicked them out.
The next morning the Manager called the clerk into his office and told him there had been many complaints about his being so rude to the hotel guests….instead of kicking them out, he should have just asked them to be less noisy. The clerk responded, “I’m sorry, but if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s chess nuts boasting in an open foyer.”
The punchline at the end – “chess nuts boasting in an open foyer” – is a play on the words of a famous “Christmas Song”, which begins “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”. “Chess nuts” are people who are “nuts” or crazy about chess; boasting rhymes with roasting; and the “open foyer” that sounds like “open fire” is another word for a reception area. We bet you didn’t realise you could do such clever things with the English language when you first started learning!