What is Pun

Pun is the use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or the use of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect[1]. According to Ruse el al, pun is a play on the dual or multiple meanings of a word or the similarity of sound between different words[2]. Its equivalent word in Greek is paronomasia [3].


  • What is Pun
  • Types of Pun
  • Approaches of Pun
  • Applications of Pun

Types of Pun

Basically speaking, puns are divided into two types which are homophonic pun and homograhic pun [4].

Homophonic Pun

homophonic pun is a common type. It is an application of words which sound alike but are with different spellings and meanings. Homophonic pun is widely used in English. Here is an example:
"When does the baker follows his trade?"
"Whenever he kneads the dough."[5]
Here, dough has two different meanings: 1.a mixture that consists essentially of flour or meal and a liquid (as milk or water) and is stiff enough to knead or roll; 2. money [6]. Homophonic pun is applied in the following two words: knead and need. The word knead means to work and press into a mass with or as if with the hands (kneading doug) while the word need means want sth. By making use of the homophonies, ambiguity arouses in this sentence.

Homographic Pun

Homographic pun is the use of words which have the same spelling but possess different sounds and meanings, which strengthens the rhetorical effect of the sentence[7]. Here is an example from Chinese culture: ChenYi smiled: "It doen't matter. Eating ink is good! Moreover, I don't have enough ink in my stomach."[8] Ink has two distinct meanings in Chinese culture. One is a colored usually liquid material for writing and printing and another one refers to one's degree of knowledge. By saying this, ChenYi joked that eating ink could help him gain more knowledge.

Approaches of Pun

Due to the certain development of the language history and the unique lexical morphology and word formation, English has its own ways of approaching puns[9].

Etymological Pun

Etymological pun is created by the borrowed word by mingling its source language meaning and its English meaning [10]. For example: Nero made Rome the focus of his artistic attention. Focus is originated from Latin with its original meaning of hearth or fireplace. The meaning has been changed since it entered English as a meaning of center point. Nero was a Roman emperor during 54--68 AD. He implemented tyranny and set fire in Roman in 64 AD. It was siad he climbed to the top of a tower and played the harp there, watching the whole Roman in a sea of fire. Nash pointed out that etymological pun could bring pedantic humour [11]. As a matter of fact, it was favored by English speaking people. Most English vocabulary, especially those from literature and academic writing, stem from Latin and Greek. As a result, etymological pun remains obscured for those who are not familiar with Latin and Greek.

Bilingual Pun

Bilingual pun is the usage of a word from another language which has the similar meaning of the related English word through homophonic or homographic coincidence [12]. Indo-European language has a large scope. Although English originates from the west Germanic language, which is a branch of the Germanic language family, it still bears close bond with Celtic Branch, Greek Branch and Latin Branch. Their tight interlanguage relationship provides a great possibility for the formation of bilingual pun. For example:
King: Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!
But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son ---
Hamlet: (Aside) A little more than kin, and less than kind.
(W. Shakespeare, Hamlet)
This is a dialogue between Hamlet and his uncle after his father was assassinated by his uncle. His uncle firstly called him "cousin", then changed the title to "son". As a response to this unusual relationship, Hamlet skillfully applied a German word -- kind, which means "son" with a similarity with the English word -- kin, both homophonically and homographically, in order to relieve his agony and rage.

Bound Morpheme Pun

English is an inflexional language in which pun can be created through the wide use of bound morpheme such as suffixal morpheme, affixal morpheme even pseudomorph [13]. Here is an example of suffixal morpheme:
She hurried out to meet him; and little Bob in his comforter --- he had need of it, poor fellow --- came in. His tea was ready for him on the hob, and they all tried who should help him to it most. Then the two young Cratchits got upon his knees and laid, each child a little cheek, against his face, as if they said, " Don't mind it, father. Don't be grieved!"
(C. Dickens, A Christmas Carol )
The noun comforter is derivated by its verb comfort which contains two different meanings --- people who give consolation to others and wollen scarf [14]. The former refers to the family which gave Bob great relief while the latter indicates the scarf around Bob's neck.
Apart from the suffixal morpheme, pun created by affixal morpheme is also very common:
Hopeless widower: Nothing can mend a broken heart.
Hopeful widow: Except re-pairing.
The word "re-pairing" said by the widow bears the deep meaning of "remarrying" which is derivated by adding the affix "re-" to the word "pairing". However, the surface meaning of the word "re-pairing" is "mending", which echos the widower's word.
on some occasions, the morpheme is analogized or even conceived. In this condition, the morpheme is called pseudomorph [15]. As the following humorous conversation:
A: In his exposition, he took a very firm stand on spending cuts.
B: How can you stand in an ex-position?[16]
Exposition bears the meaning of interpretation or elucidation. B subtly copies words like ex-president, ex-professor or ex-wife, dividing the word exposition into ex-position which implicates the previous position. In fact, the word ex-position does not exsit in English vocabulay.

Acronym Pun

Some acronyms sometimes indicate another meanings apart from their conventional meanings or by altering one or two letters, acronym pun is produced [17]. As we all know that AIDS is short for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. However, it is generally accepted that AIDS is closely bound up with homosexuality, which makes the homosexual averse. So they criticize the people who hold the opinion that AIDS directly results from homosexual sex the sufferers of AIDS. At this point, AIDS stands for Acute Intelligence Deficiency Syndrome. Acronym pun is also widely applied in western politics in order to declare one's political stand towards a certain political proposal. Take The Law of the Sea Treaty for example, nations opposite to this treaty abbreviate it as LOST. The Reagan administration rejected the The Strategic Arms Limitations Talks and modified it into Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, which made the previous acronym STALT into START by the change of one word. By doing so, Reagan administration expressed its strong determination of restarting a new round of negotiation [18].

Applications of Pun
Pun, as a play on words, is widely applied in literature and advertisement so as to achieve a stronger rhetoric effect on the literature or add humor to the advertisement [19].

Pun in Literature

The ingenious practice of pun is widely existed in literature. The feature of looking one way and rowing another makes pun a favor of the authors as they aim to create irony in their works.[20] The following example is quoted from George Bernard Shaw’s Angustus Does His Bit:
The clerk: (entering) Are you engaged?
Augustus: What business is that of yours? However, if you will take the trouble to read the society papers for this week, you will see that I am engaged to the Honorable Lucy Popham, youngest daughter of ---
The clerk: That isn't what I mean.Can you see a female?
Augustus: Of course I can see a female as easily as a male. Do you suppose I am blind?
The clerk: You don't seem to follow me, somehow, there is a female downstairs, what you might call a lady. She wants to know, can you see her if I let her up.
( Grorge Bernard Shaw, Angustus Does His Bit)
Aagustas was an official idle away for seeking pleasures. When the clerk asked him whether he could receive a visit from a woman, he was trapped in his illiberal and queen thinking circle. He took it for granted that the word “engage” meant “agreed to marry somebody” and “see” meant “define somebody or something” while in fact they could also be interpreted into “be busy or occupied” and “meet somebody” respectively. His unreasonable reproach to his subordinate makes clear a imperious official figure. Through successful use of pun in this context, distinct irony arouses.
In addition, allusion can be generated by pun:
…and he asked me where Moses was when the candle went out. I said I didn’t know; I hadn’t heard about it before, no way.… “I don’t know where he was,” says I; “where was he?”“Why he was in the dark! That’s where he was!”( M. Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) The word "dark" has a similar sound of "ark", by saying that he was "in the dark" actually alludes he was "in the ark". The pun is originated form Exodus, Bible: When Moses was three months old, in order not to be persecuted by the king of Egypt, his mother put him in an ark of bulrushes along the river side (Holy Bible, Exodus 2: 3).

Pun in Advertisement

The skillful use of puns makes advertising language vivid and humorous. Many kinds of rhetorical devices are used in advertisements and pun is one of the most frequently used ways in advertising language to help to achieve desired effects of advertisements [21].

Homophonic Pun in Advertisement
The homophonic pun in advertisement uses the words with same sounds with the allusive words but different spellings to express different meanings, which is humorous and witty. For example, “Make your every hello a real good-buy.” This is a telephone advertisement in which good-buy implies good-bye, echoing hello. At the same time, good-buy delivers a message that the product is a good choice. Another example is the Hilton Inn’s advertisement: “The “in” ides in business travel.” The word “in” means the most popular and fashionable. Meanwhile, it has an identical sound with “inn” through which it means Hilton Inn is a home away from home [22]

Homographic Pun in Advertisement
The homographic pun in advertisement uses the polysemy of a word in certain context to create an intriguing implication which affords for thought. Take the Larger’s light beer advertisement for example, “Which larger can claim to be truly German?” “This can.” The unique feature of this advertisement is the tricks on “can” which could both be interpreted into the modal word meaning “be able to” and noun “filled drinks”. Another example comes from the dental floss advertisement from JNJ company, US: “You need the strongest line of defense against gum diseases.” The “line” indicates both the dental floss and the defense line against diseases, which easily attains the publicity objective [23].


[1] The Oxford English Dictionary (vol. XIII), p.832
[2] Ruse, C. Hopton, M. The Cassell Dictionary of Literary and Language Terms. London: Cassell Publishers Ltd. 1992. p.239
[3] Cuddon, J. A. A Dictionary of Literary. 1986, p.540-541
[4] Nash, W. Rhetoric The Wit of Persuasion. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1989. p.124
[5] http://blog.163.com/dk_legendary/blog/static/24472919200739104641470/
[6] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dough?show=0&t=1305961659
[7 ] http://blog.163.com/dk_legendary/blog/static/24472919200739104641470/
[8] http://baike.baidu.com/view/1831.htm
[9] ZhangZhigong, Rhetoric Summary. Shanghai Educational Press, Shanghai. 1982. p.183
[10]Nash, W. The Language of Humour. London And New York: Longman. 1985. p.144
[11] Nash, W. The Language of Humour. London And New York: Longman. 1985. p.144
[12] Nash, W. The Language of Humour. London And New York: Longman. 1985. p.145
[13] Nash, W. The Language of Humour. London And New York: Longman. 1985. p.143
[14] Onions, C. T. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1982. p.168
[15] Nash, W. The Language of Humour. London And New York: Longman. 1985. p143
[16] LiNanguo, The Comparison of Figure of Speech between English and Chinese. Fujian People Press, Fujian. 1999. P335
[17] Onions, C. T. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982. p194
[18] LiNanguo, The Comparison of Figure of Speech between English and Chinese. Fujian People Press, Fujian. 1999. p335
[19] http://club.topsage.com/thread-344219-1-1.html
[20] http://blog.163.com/dk_legendary/blog/static/24472919200739104641470/
[21] http://club.topsage.com/thread-344219-1-1.html
[22] http://wenku.baidu.com/view/997f22f4f61fb7360b4c65bc.html
[23] http://club.topsage.com/thread-344219-1-1.html

External Links

[1] http://grammar.about.com/od/pq/g/punterm.htm
[2] http://www.tde.net.cn/yingyuggy/2010/0510/16161.html
[3] http://www.yourdictionary.com/grammar/examples/examples-of-puns-in-literature.html
[4] http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Pun