Once a pun a time in the west

A pun is the lowest form of humour, unless you thought of it yourself.  Doug Larson

A pun does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

A pun is to wordplay what dominatrix sex is to foreplay – a stinging whip that elicits groans of guilty pleasure. William Safire


Puns have played an important role in the history of human writing. Both Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs were originally based on punning systems, and the Roman loved their puns and word games. I have been reading John Pollock’s The Pun also Rises and he emphasises the significance of punning in alphabets, writing, and even human civilization itself. The Bible is full of puns although a knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek would be helpful. Jesus’s proclamation that “upon this rock I will build my church” famously played on the way Peter’s name echoed the Ancient Greek word for rock, “petra”.

Its technical name paronomasia, which in Greek means equal word, sounds rather like a serious medical condition, so I’ll stick with the English word. Pun itself appears to have come into English in the mid-seventeenth century. There is no definitive agreement among lexicographers as to its origins. One theory claims that it is comes from the Italian puntiglio, which means an equivocation, a trivial objection. It may well have been one of these such as mob, nob and snob, which were fashionable slang terms during or after the Restoration.

A Typology

There seem to be many different ways of categorising puns and there seems to be some overlap. This is not a definitive list, but here are four of the most important:

Homophonic puns

A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word but has a different meaning and/or spelling. A typical example is Flower and flour. Here are a few examples homophonic puns:

Atheism is a non-prophet institution.

Last night, I kept dreaming that I had written Lord of the Rings. The wife said I’d been Tolkien in my sleep.

You are stuck with your debt if you can’t budge it.

If Donald Trump gets elected, there’ll be hell toupee.

Homographic pun

A homograph is word that is spelled the same but has a different meaning and is pronounced differently. These puns are often written rather than spoken, as they briefly trick the reader into reading the “wrong” sound. Here are a few examples of homographic puns:

You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless you play bass.

The Who Live In Leeds.

Homonymic pun

A homonym is a word that is said or spelled the same way as another word but has a different meaning. “Write” and “right” is a good example of a pair of homonyms. Here are some examples of homonymic puns:

I saw a documentary on how ships are kept together. Riveting!

Two silk worms had a race and ended in a tie.

I decided to sell my vacuum cleaner. It was gathering dust

Transpositional pun 

A transpositional pun involves transposing the words in a well-known phrase or saying to produce a humorous effect. Here are some examples of transpositional puns:

Dieting: A waist is a terrible thing to mind.

Hangover: The wrath of grapes.

The Oboe: An ill wind nobody blows good.

Feudalism: It’s your count that votes!

A hard man is good to find.—Mae West

Until I started researching this post I had no idea how much hatred puns inspired. For most of Western history, puns were a sign of high intellect. I have already mentioned the Romans’ love of punning and Shakespeare was a punster too. But in English puns have come into serious disrepute. Pollack argues that as printing gradually transformed what had been an oral culture into a written one, punsters were forced to commit to a single spelling before the type was set. According to Catherine Bates in her paper “The Point of Puns”, the negative attitude to the pun is a consequence of the Enlightenment attempts to correct and stabilize the language. Punning does not logically fit into a preconceived ideal of how language should be; the use of it might suggest a lack of intelligence, creativity, or dignity. One of the chief haters was Samuel Johnson. Given that it took him more than eight years to put more 40,000 definitions into his dictionary, it is understandable that he might take umbrage when people messed with the rules he had taken so long to create:

To trifle with the vocabulary which is the vehicle of social intercourse is to tamper with the currency of human intelligence.”

Despite this disdain puns remain beloved in comedy, business movies and among tabloid editors. For instance we have puns in company names. I found this Behold: The Ultimate Crowdsourced Map of Punny Businesses in America. Here is a selection of them

Hannah and Her Scissors (A hair salon in Miami)

Fidler on the Tooth – (Dr. Vicki Fidler is a dentist in Seattle)

Edifice Wrecks (A demolition company in Watertown, Massachusetts)

Kitsch-22 (a selection of recycled trendy, edgy and bohemian fashion)

Vinyl Resting Place (a vintage record store in Portland, Oregon)

Once Upon A Crime (a mystery bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Citizen Canine (Dog Boarding and Doggie Daycare in Oakland)

The Lone Arranger (a Flower Shop in Ingleside, Texas)

Wish You Were Beer (a craft-only beer store in Alabama)

Sure Lock Homes (A locksmith in Port Orchard, State of Washington)

Dirty Hoe (A landscaping company in Asheville, North Carolina)

Porn movies make a creative use of punning. Here a few I found online. As far as I can tell they have actually been made:

Shaving Ryan’s Privates

Night of the Giving Head

Good Will Humping

Missionary Position Impossible 2

Laid in Manhattan

Saturday Night Beaver


Pulp Friction

Honey I Blew Everybody

Raiders of the Lost Arse

Gangbangs of New York

Flesh Gordon (I think I may have seen this one)

I have to disagree with Dr. Johnson – language should be played with. I shall remain a fan of the pun. Catherine Bates says they the ‘bastards, immigrants, barbarians, extra-terrestrials. I think we all need to support this linguistic anarchist. To all the naysayers, I say, long live the pun!

One Response to Once a pun a time in the west

  1. Alberto. says:

    Completely agree. Playing with words gives them life.

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