Puns (part 1)

The Oxford Dictionary defines a pun as ‘a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words which sound alike or have different meanings’.

There are several different types of puns, some of which are:

  • Compound pun, which includes more than one pun.
  • Homographic pun, using words that are spelt the same but sound different. They are more usually written than spoken to be at their most effective. For example, ‘You can tune a guitar, but you cannot tuna fish, unless you can play bass.’ Bass can be pronounced in different ways for a musical instrument or a fish, while tuna fish is homophonic as it is a homonym for ‘tune a’.
  • Homophonic pun, using words that sound the same but have different meanings.
  • Homonymic pun, containing elements of both homographic puns and homophonic puns, with wordplay involving a word that is spelled and sounds the same but has different meanings.
  • Recursive pun, which requires understanding of the first half of the joke in order to understand the second half. An example would be: ‘A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but means your mother’, instead of saying ‘… but means another’. Freudian slips would often hint at repressed or unconscious desires and some of his theories were based on the relationship between children and their mother.

Puns and jokes share much in common but do not mean the same. A pun necessitates wordplay while a joke may contain some wordplay, but not all jokes have any wordplay.

Puns have a long history and punning is thought to be a fundamental concept behind alphabets and writing. Egyptian hieroglyphs were based originally on punning and the Roman playwright Plautus was famous for his puns and plays on words.

When someone says ‘If you’ll excuse the pun’, ‘Pardon the pun’ or ‘No pun intended’ it usually means the exact opposite!

In part 2 I will discuss the use of puns in comedy and jokes.