Verbal Play

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

verbal play of Groucho Marx
In the role of Rufus T. Firefly in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup (1933), Groucho Marx says, "I've got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.". (American Stock Archive/Getty Images)

The term verbal play refers to the playful and often humorous manipulation of the elements of language. Also known as logologyword playspeech play, and verbal art.


Verbal play is an integral characteristic of language use and an important component in the process of language acquisition

See Examples and Observations below. Also see these specific varieties of verbal play:
Acrostic, Anagram, Antanaclasis, Asteismus, Back Slang, Chiasmus, Crash Blossom, Daffynition, Divergent Spelling, Double Entendre, FeghootHomophoneInnuendoIsogram, Kangaroo Word, Lipogram, Malaphor, Metathesis, Palindrome, Paragram, Parody, Paronomasia and PunRhopalicRhyming SlangRiddleSnigletStinky PinkyTmesisTongue Twisters

Examples and Observations

  • What's the difference between the Prince of Wales and a tennis ball?
    One is heir to the throne and the other is thrown into the air.
  • "The value of marriage is not that adults produce children but that children produce adults."(Peter De Vries, The Tunnel of Love, 1954)
     
  • "I understand your new play is full of single entendre."
    (George S. Kaufman to fellow playwright Howard Dietz)
     
  • Child: Mommy, can I go out and play?
    Mother: With those holes in your pants?
    Child: No, with the girl next door.
     
  • Your mama is so skinny she can hula-hoop a Cheerio.
     
  • Dear Sir or Madam or Sodom or Whom It May Confirm:
    I understand you are hiring programmers and hereby present my amplification for annoyment by your firm. As you see, I see, juicy lucy goosy poosy, I have long expedience in grammar and was medicated in the best schools and my dram is to ride underwear. On my clothes is my consomme. Please feel free.
    I remain your humble serpent.
    ("James Joyce Business School," A Prairie Home Companion, March 4, 2000)
     
  • Sense and Nonsense
    "Verbal play, though independent of sense, does not need to be nonsense; it is indifferent to, but not in opposition to, meaning. Verbal play is actually an appeal to reason with the intention of suspending its inhibitive power."
    (Leonard Falk Manheim, Literature and Psychology, 1988)
  • Speech Play and Verbal Art
    "The boundaries between speech play and verbal art are hard to delimit and are cultural as well as linguistic. At the same time, there are certain verbal forms where the relationship between the two is particularly salient and where it is quite clear that forms of speech play constitute the building blocks of verbal art. These include most particularly the stretching and manipulation of grammatical processes and patterns, repetition and parallelism, and figurative speech. Typically verbal art is characterized by combinations of these forms of speech play."
    (Joel Sherzer, Speech Play and Verbal Art. University of Texas Press, 2002)
  • Verbal Play in African American Communities
    - "Verbal play in the African American community is both performance and entertainment, oriented like sandlot football or card playing at picnics. But it can, on occasion, be as serious a kind of play as competitive football or bid whist tournaments."
    (T. Garner and C. Calloway-Thomas, "African American Orality: Expanding Rhetoric." Understanding African American Rhetoric, ed. by R. L. Jackson and E. B. Richardson. Routledge, 2003)

    - "In inner-city communities where black English is spoken . . . certain styles of verbal play are commonly practiced and highly valued. Such play involves both play with language and provocative play with social conventions. Individual social standing in part depends on the command of these highly structured types of repartee and the ability to 'keep cool' while giving and receiving outrageous insults or challenges to self-esteem. Young children in such communities gradually learn this style of verbal play, using one-liners at first, but often accidentally giving or taking real offense before they understand how to use the techniques creatively and with the proper emotional distance."
    (Catherine Garvey, Play. Harvard University Press, 1990)