Words at Play

An Introduction to Recreational Linguistics

word play
"Playing with words," said Scottish author Henry Home, "is a mark of a mind at ease" (Elements of Criticism, 1762). (Annie Otzen/Getty Images)

Say the word pun, and even your dearest friends are likely to roll their eyes and groan. Say paronomasia (the rhetorical term for punning), and those same friends will probably go "Huh?"—and then roll their eyes and groan.

But trust me: punning has an important (if not terribly serious) purpose.

[P]uns show the arbitrary nature of languagethe same sounds can mean such radically different thingsand remind us that everything we say is a thin line we walk above a howling chaos of chance resemblances.

Puns are of their nature surrealthey link things that might otherwise never be put side by side; they offend our sense of decorum, our sense that the universe is to be understood by neat pyramids of taxonomy. They are also, in another sense, democraticnot everyone has the training in elaborate verbal balance to write a sonnet or deliver a crushing epigrambut almost anyone might commit a pun.
(Roz Kaveny, "John Donne, Priest and Poet, Part 7: Puns in Defiance of Reason." The Guardian, July 2, 2012)

Today's topic is word play—otherwise known as recreational linguistics or logology—and I'll understand if some of you choose to flee. But keep in mind that a significant part of all language use is a form of play and that activities involving word play generally appeal to students' natural interest in language.

Here are just a few of those recreational activities.

  1. Daffynitions
    According to the Uxbridge English Dictionary, a scandal is footwear you should be ashamed of. A coffee is someone who is coughed upon. And pasteurize is clearly too far to see. For the past four decades, making up daffynitions such as these has been a popular part of the BBC Radio 4 panel show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Besides a good sense of humor, all you need to play the game are a few words that are ripe for playful reinterpretation.
  2. Portmanteau Words
    The term portmanteau word (more formally known as a blend) was coined by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass: "there are two meanings packed up into one word." Recently manufactured blends include Frankenfood (Frankenstein + food), textpectation (text message + expectation), and Viagravation (Viagra + aggravation)—though I suspect you've already come up with some better examples of your own.
  1. Sniglets
    Remember dork (for a person who pushes on a door marked "pull") or pupkus (the moist residue left on a window after a dog presses its nose to it)? These are just two of the words coined in the 1980s by American comedian Rich Hall, who defined sniglet as "a word that doesn't appear in the dictionary but should." Though the Sniglets fad is long past, there's always a need for humorous new words.
  1. Antanaclasis and Ploce
    Antanaclasis is a kind of pun in which a word is repeated but with a contrasting (and sometimes comic) meaning. American football coach Vince Lombardi is credited with this example: "If you aren't fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm." Similar word play is shown by ploce—the repetition of a word or name with a new or specified sense. Marketers for downscale hotels seem to favor this device:
    • Comfortable Place, Comfortable Price. (Shoney's Inn & Suites)
    • Our Rooms Aren't Fancy. Our Prices Aren't Fancy. (Motel 6)
  2. Malapropisms
    Strictly speaking, verbal blunders aren't rhetorical devices, but, as Archie Bunker once said, "We need a few laughs to break up the monogamy." Named after the character of Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan's play The Rivals (1775), a malapropism (also known as acyrologia) is any absurd or humorous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound. Here's another Bunkerism—and another logological turn involving the word pasteurize: "They just want to get rid of us old guys over 50 that's all, and put us out to pasture. Well I ain't ready to be pasteurized!"

On the subject of word play, I could go on and on. But hearing pupsqueaks (the sound a yawning dog emits when it opens its mouth too wide), I'll instead turn this punnery over to you.

And with that, as Mr. Bunker once said, "Case closed, ipso fatso."

More Varieties of Word Play

Acrostic, Anagram, Asteismus, Back Slang, Chiasmus, Crash Blossom, Divergent Spelling, Double Entendre, Feghoot, Homophone, Innuendo, Isogram, Kangaroo Word, Lipogram, Malaphor, Metathesis, Palindrome, Paragram, Parody, Paronomasia, Polysemy, Pun, Rhopalic, Rhyming Slang, Riddle, Snowclone, Spoonerism, Stinky Pinky, Syllepsis, Tmesis, Tom Swifty, Tongue Twisters, Univocalic, Verbal Irony