What Is Verbal Play?

verbal play of Groucho Marx
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The term verbal play refers to the playful and often humorous manipulation of the elements of language. Also known as logology, wordplayspeech play, and verbal art.

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

Examples and Observations

Peter De Vries: The value of marriage is not that adults produce children but that children produce adults.

George S. Kaufman: I understand your new play is full of single entendre.

Leonard Falk Manheim: 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.

Joel Sherzer: 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.

T. Garner and C. Calloway-Thomas: 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.

Catherine Garvey: 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.