What Exactly is a Pun and the Types of Puns in Literature

“Why did Adele cross the road? To say hello from the other side”. Did you chuckle on reading this? The previous sentence is not just a joke, it is a pun. Puns are a literary device frequently used in literature, speech, or jokes, to generate a rhetorical or funny impact in a piece of writing or as an icebreaker at a party. In fact, bad puns, have the same groan-inducing effect as dad jokes. You will come across different types of puns in literature, each of which has a different purpose. Let’s look at these in the sections below, along with some well-known pun examples in literature.

What is a Pun?

A pun (PUHn) is a sort of wordplay that exploits the several alternative meanings of a word or the fact that certain words sound similar but have different meanings. 

The term pun probably appeared in English in the 1660s, most likely as one of the cut words (such as snob or mob) that became popular slang during or just after the Restoration period. Scholars suggest that the term pun is derived from pundigron, which is most likely a comical adaptation of the Italian puntiglio, which means “equivocation, minor objection.”

The Different Types of Puns

You will come across 6 different types of puns in literature. They are as follows:

  • Compound puns are phrases that include numerous puns. For example, “Don’t scam in the jungle; cheetahs are always spotted.”
An example of a Homographic Pun
Homographic Pun Examples
  • Homographic puns are those that use words that have the same spelling but distinct meanings. These puns are also called heteronymic puns. For example: “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” 
An Example of a Recursive Pun
An Example of a Recursive Pun
  • Recursive puns are those that are made up of two components. The second half of the pun is meaningless until the first half is comprehended. 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 Star Wars films, and May 4th is celebrated as Star Wars Day by fans of the franchise.
  • Homophonic puns rely on words with similar sounds or pronunciations, but distinct meanings. For example, “Today, I bet the butcher that he wouldn’t be able to throw the meat farther than the table. He refused to take my bet as the steaks were too high.”
  • Homonymic puns are a combination of tomographic and homophonic puns. For example, “John discovered that his spaghetti had expired. He was sad that it pasta way.”
An example of a visual pun. Here B in the USB sounds similar to Bee.
An Example of a Visual Pun
  • Visual puns do not make use of written language. They use graphics, logos, or photos instead. A visual pun can be an image of pieces of baggage weeping, laughing, or appearing afraid. This visual pun alludes to emotional baggage. These puns are sometimes known as graphological puns. 

Puns in Literature

Puns abound in classic works of literature, as writers over the years have experimented with the sounds and meanings of the English language to generate intriguing results. They may be found in literary works ranging from the prose through Shakespeare to current poetry. Consider the following instances of how writers have employed puns in their work.

Puns in Prose

Puns may also be used in novels and plays to bring comedy and subtlety to the tale. There are several puns in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that contribute to the weirdness of Wonderland. For example, Alice gets the words “tale” and “tail” mixed up in the dialogue:

“‘Mine is a long and a sad tale!’ said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing. ‘It is a long tail, certainly,’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; ‘but why do you call it sad?’ And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking.”

The title of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest contains a pun. The main character is neither sincere nor Ernest at first, but towards the conclusion of the play, he is both:

“I’ve realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”

In A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle plays with the pun “happy middle”, which is also the name of a joyful psychic who lives on a neutral planet. The sentence is repeated to Meg several times, such as when Mrs. Murray says:

“A happy medium is something I wonder if you’ll ever find.”

Shakespearean Puns

No writer is more famous for his use of puns than William Shakespeare. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, he plays with the words “tide” and “tied.”

“Panthino

Away, ass! You’ll lose the tide if you tarry any longer.

Launce

It is no matter if the tied were lost; for it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied.

Panthino

What’s the unkindest tide?

Launce

Why, he that’s tied here, Crab, my dog.”

Another pun example from Shakespeare is visible in this line from Romeo and Juliet, which plays on the different meanings of heavy:

“Give me a torch: I am not for this ambling; Being but heavy I will bear the light.”

Or, in this banter from the opening of Richard III, where the sun alludes to the blazing sun on Edward IV’s flag as well as the fact that he is the Duke of York’s son.

“Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

A Pun in Poetry

Pun examples are plentiful in poetry as well. In his poem “With a Book,” Ambrose Bierce puts a pun on Robert Browning’s name. Take note of Bierce’s use of color terms to make a point about Browning’s writing:

“Words shouting, singing, smiling, frowning —

Sense lacking.

Ah, nothing more obscure than Browning

Save blacking.”

Final Thoughts

Over the decades, authors have used puns to delight astute readers and make reading more entertaining by incorporating some witty wordplay. However, puns are not only amusing, but they may also cause you to pause and reconsider what you’ve read from a new perspective, giving you a greater appreciation for a writer’s ability and command of the language. You may watch the videos below for more pun examples in literature.

Other Puns in Shakespeare Literature
Puns in Julius Ceaser or Julius Seizure

For more lessons on the English Language visit the Podium School blog.

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