Puns, being not only a literary device but also a special type of humor, imply using a certain word (either the one that has a couple of meanings that can both be applied to the given situation or the one that suggests the meaning of a similar sounding word) to create a witty, humorous effect. The main characteristic of a pun is its ambiguity. Homonyms and homophones are used as puns most frequently.
The term itself derives from paronomasia. It originates from the Greek word “paronomazein” and translates as “to change a name slightly.” The roots of the term explain it very clearly: a slight change of the word is intended to bring a new meaning to the whole phrase or sentence. It dates back to 1570-1580, which means that this literary device existed even in old scholars’ works.
Puns can be subcategorized, as there are numerous ways to implement this literary technique. The most common puns include:
the homophonic ones, where the homonyms are used (the words that sound identical but have different definitions and explanations);
the homographic ones, which imply the usage of the words that differ in the way they sound but have exactly the same way of spelling;
the homonymic ones, which are a combination of the two previously mentioned types – they imply using the words that sound similar and are written in the same way but have different meanings;
recursive puns require the reader to understand the first part of a sentence (or a joke) to figure out the meaning of the part with a pun;
compound ones consist of more than one pun that are all connected and support the overall idea of the sentence or the text.
It is a common mistake to confuse puns with jokes. Even though they have a lot in common and share some qualities, jokes and puns are two different literary tools. While a pun requires its author to use a wordplay, jokes don’t need to meet that demand. Also, the purpose of a joke is to create a comical effect and add humor to the situation. Puns, however, don’t always comprise humor or wit and can be used for a rhetorical impact.
The term “double entendre,” which means double meaning or intention, is also sometimes described as a pun but has a different sense. While puns mostly contain similar sounding words and homophones, a double entendre implies using only one word that has multiple meanings. It can be used to create a comical effect, deliberately confuse the reader, and make hints. For example, a double entendre was used by D. Knight in one of his short stories where he describes aliens who came to Earth and brought a book called “To Serve Man.” While all the humans thought that the book was about how to “perform services” for men, it was actually about how to cook and serve people for dinner.
Even though puns sometimes are considered as simple humor, they are widely used in real-life conversations and literature and often require the reader and the author to possess the knowledge and clear comprehension (especially when it’s a recursive pun). They are able to add humor and wit to the text and shape it in a certain manner, often a playful one. As a literary device, puns often serve to express the writer’s wit and intellect or to show the cleverness of the character. When used appropriately, puns provide comic relief. Sometimes they are unintentional, which shows the author’s creative abilities and adds a bit of levity to the text.
The number of pun examples in literature is endless. Perhaps the most famous ones are presented in the works of Shakespeare. For example, the conversation between Hamlet and the gravedigger contains many puns concerning the word “lie,” which means both lying down horizontally and not telling the truth.
Lewis Carroll also used a couple of puns in one of his most famous books. When Alice uses the word “axis, ” and the Duchess connects it with “axes,” the reader can clearly see the intended homophonic pun.
Another author who didn’t mind using puns in his literary pieces was Oscar Wilde. Basically, he built the whole play on one homophonic pun, where the name of the main character, Earnest, was functioning as quality as well. This is a classic example of a pun that adds some wit to the text and allows the reader to feel rewarded after they’ve figured out the pun.
Puns imply an intended (and sometimes not) wordplay, which requires the author to use a word that has an ambiguous meaning. This literary tool serves to add humor to the text and to make the general tone of the author’s language cleverer. It originates from the Greek term “paronomazein,” which means “to slightly change the name” and has been used since 1570-1580, thus proving the importance and effectiveness of this literary technique.
Puns are often used in daily conversations but have a different meaning than jokes. A pun can also be used to express irony or add a rhetorical context. It has different sub-categories, which means this device requires certain knowledge to be understood.