Paronomasia: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Sparrow drinking water
"Get that bird a glass of water," said Magilla Gorilla. "He's perched!" (Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law).  Andi Edwards / Getty Images

Paronomasia also called agnominatio is a rhetorical term for punning, playing with words.

"The point of paronomasia," says Wolfgang G. Müller, "is that a mere accidental phonetic relationship assumes the appearance of a semantic relationship." ("Iconicity and Rhetoric" in The Motivated Sign, 2001).

The term paronomasia is sometimes used more loosely to describe a combination of words that are similar in sound.

Etymology

From the Greek: para: beside, onoma: name 

Examples and Observations

  • "A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handyman with a sense of humus."
    (E.B. White, "The Practical Farmer")
  • "Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends."
    (credited to Tom Waits)
  • I used to be a tap dancer until I fell in the sink.
  • "The Lone Hydrangea"
    (name of a flower shop in Melbourne, Australia)
  • "Curl Up and Dye"
    (beauty salon in London)
  • "Al’s Clip Joint"
    (barber shop in London)
  • "Rock and Sole Plaice"
    (fish & chip shop in London)
  • "Award Wieners"
    ("Hollywood hot dog stand" in Disneyland)
  • "Thai Me Up"
    (Thai restaurant in Manhattan)
  • "I have a mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it."
    (Groucho Marx)
  • "Well, I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."
    (Tom Waits on Fernwood2Night, 1977)
  • "Dishgusted, dishgusted, dishgusted."
    (ad for Lux dishwashing liquid)
  • "We're tobacco men . . . not medicine men. Old Gold cures just one thing. The World's Best Tobacco."
    (advertising slogan for Old Gold cigarettes)
  • "Peace is much more precious than a piece of land."
    (Anwar al-Sadat, speech in Cairo on March 8, 1978)
  • "Oh look—it has B-12 in it. I didn’t know that B-4."
    (commercial for Kelloggs Bran)
  • "Your children need your presence more than your presents."
    (Jesse Jackson)
  • "Contraceptives should be used on every conceivable occasion."
    (Spike Milligan)
  • "Horse Lovers are Stable People."
    (saying on a pillow in the Potpourri gift catalog)
  • "Every bubble's passed its fizzical"
    (slogan for Corona soft drink)
  • "Yea, and so used it that were it not here apparent that thou art heir apparent."
    (Falstaff to Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare)

Paronomasia in Shakespeare

"Henry Peacham warns that [paronomasia] ought to be 'sparingly used, and especially in grave and weightie causes': that it is a 'light and illuding forme,' which 'seemeth not to be found without meditation and affected labor.' Contemporary awareness of its hazards, however, prevented neither [William] Shakespeare nor [Lancelot] Andrewes from employing paronomasia in the most serious of contexts. Desdemona, for example, catches her husband's habit of wordplay in trying to determine the reasons for his sudden coldness toward her; 'I cannot say Whore,' she asserts, immediately before saying its sound again: 'It do's abhorre me now I speake the word' (4.2)...

"Over and over, the force of the gathering objection to punning in general and to paronomasia in particular seems to have been that the fortuitousness of the connections it insists on makes it fundamentally a comic device; its appearance on the lips of a dying hero or, perhaps even more shockingly, at the climax of a sermon, came increasingly to be regarded as willfully and absurdly inappropriate."

(Sophie Read. "Puns: Serious Wordplay." Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

The Lighter Side of Paronomasia: A Pungent Chapter

The following half-baked exercise in paronomasia appeared in Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, Science and Art: A Melange of Excerpta, Curious, Humorous, and Instructive, edited by Charles C. Bombaugh (T. Newton Kurtz, 1860). 

A Pun-Gent Chapter

At one time there was a general strike among the workingmen of Paris, and Theodore Hook gave the following amusing account of the affair:

The bakers, being ambitious to extend their  do-mains, declared that a revolution was needed, and, though not exactly  bred up to arms, soon reduced their  crusty masters to terms.
The tailors called a council of the  board to see what  measures should be taken, and looking upon the bakers as the  flower of chivalry, decided to follow  suit; the consequence of which was, that a  cereous* insurrection was  lighted up among the candle-makers, which, however wick-ed it might appear in the eyes of some persons, developed traits of character not unworthy of ancient  Greece.

* The adjective cereous means waxen or waxlike.

Pronunciation: par-oh-no-MAZE-jah

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Nordquist, Richard. "Paronomasia: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Mar. 28, 2018, thoughtco.com/paronomasia-word-play-1691572. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, March 28). Paronomasia: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/paronomasia-word-play-1691572 Nordquist, Richard. "Paronomasia: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/paronomasia-word-play-1691572 (accessed April 22, 2018).