Pun: Definition and Examples in English

Time flies. Clock with wings
A visual pun: time flies.

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A pun is a play on words, either on different senses of the same word or on the similar sense or sound of different words. Known in rhetoric as paronomasia.

Puns are figures of speech based on the inherent ambiguities of language. Although puns are commonly regarded as a childish form of humor, they are often found in advertisements and newspaper headlines. Poet Louis Untermeyer said that punning is like poetry: "something every person belittles and every person attempts."

A person who is fond of making puns is called a punster. (The punster, it has been said, is a person who enjoys hearing his friends groan.)

Examples and Observations

  • "To pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms."
    (Walter Redfern, Puns: More Senses Than One. John Wiley & Sons, 1986)
  • I would like to go to Holland someday. Wooden shoe?
  • "There was a man who entered a pun contest. He sent in ten different puns, in the hope that at least one of the puns would win. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did."
    (Brian Becker et al., A Prairie Home Companion Pretty Good Joke Book, 3rd ed. HighBridge, 2003)
  • "When it rains, it pours."
    (slogan of Morton Salt since 1911)
  • "When it pours, it reigns."
    (slogan of Michelin tires)
  • Kings worry about a receding heir line.
  • "What food these morsels be!"
    (slogan of Heinz pickles, 1938)
  • "American Home has an edifice complex."
    (slogan of American Home magazine)
  • "Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight"
    (Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night")
  • "Look deep into our ryes."
    (slogan of Wigler's Bakery)
  • "Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted."
    (Fred Allen)
  • "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."
    (Groucho Marx)
  • "I saw a documentary on how ships are kept together. Riveting!"
    (Canadian comedian Stewart Francis, quoted by Mark Brown in "Edinburgh Fringe's 10 Funniest Jokes Revealed." The Guardian, August 20, 2012)
  • A vulture boards a plane, carrying two dead possums. The attendant looks at him and says, "I'm sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger."
  • Boo's (name of a liquor store)

Writers on Puns

  • "Punning is an art of harmonious jingling upon words, which, passing in at the ears, and falling upon the diaphragm, excites a titillary motion in those parts; and this, being conveyed by the animal spirits into the muscles of the face, raises the cockles of the heart."
    (Jonathan Swift, "The Physical Definition of Punning According to Cardan")
  • "A pun is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit. It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect."
    (Charles Lamb, "That the Worst Puns are the Best")
  • "'Sir, no man ever condemned a good pun who was able to make one.' I know not a more aggrieved and unjustly proscribed character in the present day than the poor painstaking punster. He is the Paria of the dining-table; it is the fashion to run him down: and as every dull ass thinks that he may have a kick at the prostrate witling, may I be condemned to pass a whole week without punning (a fearful adjuration!) if I do not show that the greatest sages, poets, and philosophers of all ages, have been enrolled upon this proscribed list!"
    (Horace Smith, "On Puns and Punsters." Gaieties and Gravities, 1826)
  • "People who make puns are like wanton boys that put coppers on the railroad tracks. They amuse themselves and other children, but their little trick may upset a freight train of conversation for the sake of a battered witticism."
    (Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat the Breakfast-Table, 1858)


  • Sookie Stackhouse: So I've been listening in on people's thoughts, hoping I might hear something to clear him and apparently there's this vampire bar where Maudette and Dawn used to hang out at in Shreveport. You know it?
    Bill Compton: Fangtasia.
    Sookie Stackhouse: Fang-tasia?
    Bill Compton: You have to remember that most vampires are very old. Puns used to be the highest form of humor.
    (Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer in "Escape from Dragon House." True Blood, 2008)

Obscene Puns

  • "All obscene puns have the same underlying construction in that they consist of two elements. The first element sets the stage for the pun by offering seemingly harmless material, such as the title of a book, The Tiger's Revenge. But the second element either is obscene in itself or renders the first element obscene as in the name of the author of The Tiger's Revenge--Claude Bawls."
    (Peter Farb, Word Play, 1974)

The Instability of Language

  • "Forgetting what we know can often be hard. Entirely apart from the intrinsic challenge of willfully forgetting or ignoring what we think we know, the insights we gain from that can also be unsettling or destabilizing. Puns, by revealing the inherent instability of language, work in much the same way. In one sense they are a tacit acknowledgment of rules because you have to know a rule if you're going to cleverly break it. But at the same time, by scrambling the relationship between sound, symbol, and meaning, puns reveal that the words we use to define the world around us are ultimately just arbitrary signs."
    (John Pollack, The Pun Also Rises. Gotham Books, 2011)

The Equivoque—A Special Type of Pun

  • "A special type of pun, known as the equivoque, is the use of a single word or phrase which has two disparate meanings, in a context which makes both meanings equally relevant. An example is the phrase 'come to dust' in a song from Shakespeare's Cymbeline: 'Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.'"
    (M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 8th ed. Wadsworth, 2005)

Punning and Paronomasia in Films

"Where the figurative meaning of a word is confronted by its literal image, the pun is rather more filmic. . . . As we see the police raising a car from the Thames, the voice of a radio commentator expresses the confident opinion that the thieves who stole the gold bricks 'would find their loot too hot to handle.' Two of them are now seen with tongs, lifting a glowing retort out of a furnace and pouring gold into molds of the Eiffel Tower. There are several such puns in The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton)."
(N. Roy Clifton, The Figure in Film. Associated University Presses, 1983)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Pun: Definition and Examples in English." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/pun-word-play-1691703. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Pun: Definition and Examples in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pun-word-play-1691703 Nordquist, Richard. "Pun: Definition and Examples in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pun-word-play-1691703 (accessed April 1, 2023).