What Is a Pun? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Pun Definition


A pun (PUHn) is a type of word play that humorously exploits the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that some words sound alike but have different meanings.

The word pun was first used in English in the 1660s, most likely as one of the clipped words (such as mob or snob) that came into fashionable slang at or shortly after the Restoration period. There is no clear attribution for the word pun, but scholars speculate it is derived from pundigron, which is most likely a humorous alteration of the Italian puntiglio, meaning “equivocation, trivial objection.”


Types of Puns


Some may be surprised to learn that there are several categories of pun.

  • Compound puns: These are sentences that contain multiple puns. For example, “Don’t scam in the jungle; cheetahs are always spotted.”
  • Homographic puns: These puns utilize words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings. For example: “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” This type of pun is also referred to as heteronymic puns.
  • Homophonic puns: This pun relies on words that have similar sounds or pronunciations but different meanings. For example, “Yesterday, I bet the butcher that she couldn’t reach the meat on the top shelf. She refused to take my bet since the steaks were too high.”
  • Homonymic puns: This type combines homophonic and homographic puns. For example, “Frank cried when he found out his spaghetti had expired. It pasta way.”
  • Recursive puns: These are puns composed in two parts. The second part of the pun doesn’t make sense unless the first part is understood. For example, to understand the pun “May the Fourth be with you,” one must know that “May the force be with you” is an iconic line in the Star Wars movies and that May 4th is commonly known as Star Wars Day among fans of the franchise.
  • Visual puns: As implied, visual puns don’t use written language. Instead, they utilize graphics, logos, or images. An example of a visual pun would be an image of pieces of luggage crying, laughing, and looking scared. This visual pun connotes the idea of emotional baggage. These types of puns are also called graphological puns.


Why People Use Puns


Puns have been an essential part of comedy from ancient Egypt and Mayan hieroglyphic writing to the comedic plays of Plautus, William Shakespeare, and Oscar Wilde. Humorists have depended on this kind of word play throughout the history of comedy because it is a reliable source of amusement.

Puns are just as common in the modern era. They commonly make appearances in these forms:

  • Dad jokes,a willfully corny type of humor that often relies on puns
  • International pun competitions, where people travel the world to see who can craft the best puns
  • Television shows like The Simpsons, Futurama, and Bob’s Burgers, which can employ visual as well as spoken puns
  • Store names, such as Planet of the Grapes (a wine and spirits seller), Curl Up and Dye (a hair salon), Lord of the Rinse (a laundry shop), and the bakery Bread Pitt


Puns and Other Figures of Speech


Puns are often confused with similar figures of speech and word play, such as double entendres, idioms, and malapropisms.

  • A double entendre is a French term referring to words or phrases that are open to two different interpretations. While they can be created in pun form, double entendres are also formed through simple ambiguity. Double entendres tend be sexual in nature. For example, the name of the character Pussy Galore in the James Bond movie Goldfinger is a double entendre, as is the way that Charley Bates from Charles Dickens’s book Oliver Twist is referred to as Master Bates.
  • An idiom is an expression whose meaning cannot be inferred based on its constituent elements. For example, the idiomatic phrase “Kick the bucket” refers to dying, not the literal act of kicking a bucket.
  • A malaprop occurs when an incorrect word is used in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical and sometimes humorous utterance; for example, if one said “Dance a flamingo” instead of “dance a flamenco.” The term malaprop comes from the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals. Her character frequently misspeaks in this way to great comedic effect. Malaprops are also referred to as Dogberryisms, as the character Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing utters many similar humorous errors.


Examples of Puns in Literature


1. William Shakespeare, Richard III

In the opening lines of Shakespeare’s play, young Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, delivers a soliloquy:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

These opening lines are a homophonic pun. Richard uses the identical sound of the words sun and son to paint an image of the sun casting away the clouds and winter due to the actions of his brother, King Edward of the House of York—aka the son of York.

2. Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Both the title of Wilde’s play and its plot depend on a pun reliant on the name Ernest being a homograph of the adjective earnest. The main characters, John “Jack” Worthing and Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff, pose as men named Ernest. In Act III, Jack—who has now learned that his given name is in fact Ernest—delivers the final line of the play:

On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being Earnest.

Jack/Ernest’s declaration is a pun—it includes both the importance of having found out his true name/identity, as well as the importance of being earnest (sincere).

3. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Nabokov’s novel is full of word play, some moments overt and other less so. In Chapter 18, Nabokov writes:

We had breakfast in the town of Soda, pop. 1001.

This is one of the most obvious puns in the novel, as Nabokov uses the name of the town and abbreviation for the word population to enable a pun with the phrase soda pop.

Other puns in this novel require more erudition on the part of the reader. For example, the name of Lolita’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a multilingual pun. Humbert means “shadow” in French and “man” in Spanish. Thus, it is a play on words that indicates the darkness of the character.


Further Resources on Puns


The Atlantic published a fascinating article exploring why many people don’t enjoy puns.

John Pollack’s book The Pun Also Rises explores the history of puns, as well as people who make them. Its title is a homophonic pun referencing the title of the famous Ernest Hemmingway novel, The Sun Also Rises.

The website Bored Panda published a great list of the puniest store names.


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