A pun is an expression that involves playfully using or exploiting homonyms (words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings) or homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently) to humorous effect.
The humor that comes from a pun is based on the ambiguities words entail. For example, in the sentence, “A chicken farmer’s favorite car is a coupe,” a coupe refers to a car with two doors, but the homophone coop refers to the dwellings of a chicken. Likewise, in the riddle “Why did the teacher wear sunglasses in class? Because he students were so bright,” bright refers to the intelligence of the students, but would also seem to imply that they give off a lot of light.
Common Pun Examples
In everyday speech, puns occur either deliberately and unintentionally, and the results can demonstrate wit and humor. Some examples include:
- A farmer counted 196 cows in the field. But when he rounded them up, he had 200.
- A clown held the door open for me. I thought it was a nice jester.
- Frog Parking Only: All others will be towed.
- What exercise is popular amongst lazy people? Diddly-squats.
- I just found out I’m colorblind. The diagnosis came completely out of the purple.
- Why do cows have bells? Because their horns don’t work.
Examples of Pun in Literature
Authors routinely use puns in their literary works
William Shakespeare was well known for using puns in many of his great works.
“Tomorrow, you shall find me a grave man,” Mercutio states this as he has been fatally stabbed and begins to succumb to death. It is both in reference to seriousness and the fact that his death is imminent (Romeo and Juliet).
“The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well: but civil, count; civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion.” This pun is very subtle, but Beatrice is making reference to a type of bitter orange that grows in Seville, Spain. (Much Ado About Nothing).
“Get thee to a nunnery.” When Hamlet says this to Ophelia, he prefers to both a convent and brothel simultaneously. In essence, he is telling Ophelia that she is pure and immoral at the same time
Lewis Carroll is another author that made use of puns, especially in Alice in Wonderland, his most well-known work. Given that this novel was intended to appeal to children, the puns are fairly simple.
The Mad Hatter asks the riddle “How is a raven like a writing desk, and answers with “It is nevar put with the wrong end in front!” In this case, “never” is misspelled as to appear as “raven” written backwards.
Alice explains, “You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis —” when the Duchess, mishearing what she had said, responds with, “Talking of axes, chop off her head!”
When Alice meets The Mock Turtle, she asks him why he called his teacher “Tortoise,” to which he responds, “We called him Tortoise because he taught us.”
The Bible – both the Old and New Testament – contain many uses of puns.
One of the oldest known puns comes from the Book of Judges, which was believed to have been written around 550 B.C. The tenth chapter of the Book of Judges mentions thirty sons who “rode around on thirty burros and lived in thirty boroughs.” In this case, ‘burros’ makes reference to donkeys while ‘boroughs’ refers to city districts.
The name Peter (Petros) meant “rock” in ancient Greek, and Jesus, when making reference to Peter states, “Upon this rock, I will build my church.”
In the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, the author includes puns when making reference to character names (such as Weasley being a reference to weasel, and whose family lives in Ottery St. Catchpole).
Many other place names are puns too. For instance, Knockturn Alley and Diagon Alley are clear references to the words “nocturnally” and “diagonally.” Similarly, Grimmauld Place is a play on “grim old place.”
Function of Pun
In addition to being used as jokes or witting comments, authors often use puns as a technique for enhancing the meaning of a text or to influence the way the text is intended to be understood. For example, the writer might use puns to signify that the character in a particular story is clever. Likewise, the author might incorporate puns into their work in order to demonstrate their own comic sensibilities or as a means to show off his/her ability to use word play in a creative manner. In other words, beyond making you laugh, a pun can be an effective way to make you think.