Word Play: Having Fun With the Sounds and Meanings of Words

Kermit the Frog
According to Kermit the Frog, "Time's fun when you're having flies!". Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Word play is verbal wit: the manipulation of language (in particular, the sounds and meanings of words) with the intent to amuse. Also known as logology and verbal play.

Most young children take great pleasure in word play, which T. Grainger and K. Goouch characterize as a "subversive activity . . . through which children experience the emotional charge and power of their own words to overturn the status quo and to explore boundaries ("Young Children and Playful Language" in Teaching Young Children, 1999).

Examples and Observations of Word Play

  • Antanaclasis
    "Your argument is sound, nothing but sound." - playing on the dual meaning of "sound" as a noun signifying something audible and as an adjective meaning "logical" or "well-reasoned."
    (Benjamin Franklin)
  • Double Entendre
    "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted." - playing on "drift" being a verb of motion as well as a noun denoting a snowbank.
    (Mae West)
  • Malaphor
    "Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears." - mixing two metaphors: "wet behind the ears" and "green," both of which signify inexperience.
    (Senator Barack Obama, Oct. 2008)
  • Malapropism
    "Why not? Play captains against each other, create a little dysentery in the ranks." - using "dysentery" instead of the similar-sounding "dissent" to comic effect.
    (Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos)
  • Paronomasia and Puns
    "Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted." - riffing on the similarity of "quoted" to "quartered" as in "drawn and quartered."
    (Fred Allen)
  • "Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends."
    (credited to Tom Waits)
  • "Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job."
    (James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922)
  • "I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
    My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
    But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
    Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
    And having done that, Thou hast done;
    I fear no more."
    (John Donne, "A Hymn to God the Father")
  • Sniglet
    pupkus, the moist residue left on a window after a dog presses its nose to it. - a made-up word that sounds like "pup kiss," since no actual word for this exists.
  • Syllepsis
    "When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes." - a figure of speech in which a single word is applied to two others in two different senses (here, raising one's voice and raising one's hopes).
    (E.B. White, "Dog Training")
  • Tongue Twisters
    "Chester chooses chestnuts, cheddar cheese with chewy chives. He chews them and he chooses them. He chooses them and he chews them. . . . those chestnuts, cheddar cheese and chives in cheery, charming chunks." - repetition of the "ch" sound.
    (Singing in the Rain, 1952)
     

Language Use as a Form of Play

"Jokes and witty remarks (including puns and figurative language) are obvious instances of word-play in which most of us routinely engage. But it is also possible to regard a large part of all language use as a form of play. Much of the time speech and writing are not primarily concerned with the instrumental conveying of information at all, but with the social interplay embodied in the activity itself. In fact, in a narrowly instrumental, purely informational sense most language use is no use at all.

Moreover, we are all regularly exposed to a barrage of more or less overtly playful language, often accompanied by no less playful images and music. Hence the perennial attraction (and distraction) of everything from advertising and pop songs to newspapers, panel games, quizzes, comedy shows, crosswords, Scrabble and graffiti."
(Rob Pope, The English Studies Book: An Introduction to Language, Literature and Culture, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002)
 

Word Play in the Classroom

"We believe the evidence base supports using word play in the classroom. Our belief relates to these four research-grounded statements about word play:

- Word play is motivating and an important component of the word-rich classroom.
- Word play calls on students to reflect metacognitively on words, word parts, and context.
- Word play requires students to be active learners and capitalizes on possibilities for the social construction of meaning.
- Word play develops domains of word meaning and relatedness as it engages students in practice and rehearsal of words."

(Camille L. Z. Blachowicz and Peter Fisher, "Keeping the 'Fun' in Fundamental: Encouraging Word Awareness and Incidental Word Learning in the Classroom Through Word Play." Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice, ed. by James F. Baumann and Edward J. Kameenui. Guilford, 2004)
 

Shakespeare's Word Play

"Wordplay was a game the Elizabethans played seriously. Shakespeare's first audience would have found a noble climax in the conclusion of Mark Antony's lament over Caesar:

O World! thou wast the Forrest to this Hart
And this indeed, O World, the Hart of thee,

just as they would have relished the earnest pun of Hamlet's reproach to Gertrude:

Could you on this faire Mountaine leave to feed,
And batten on this Moore?

To Elizabethan ways of thinking, there was plenty of authority for these eloquent devices. It was to be found in Scripture (Tu es Petrus . . .) and in the whole line of rhetoricians, from Aristotle and Quintilian, through the neo-classical textbooks that Shakespeare read perforce at school, to the English writers such as Puttenham whom he read later for his own advantage as a poet."
(M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay. Routledge, 1968)
 

Found Word-Play

"A few years ago I was sitting at a battered desk in my room in the funky old wing of the Pioneer Inn, Lahaina, Maui, when I discovered the following rhapsody scratched with ballpoint pen into the soft wooden bottom of the desk drawer.

Saxaphone
Saxiphone
Saxophone
Saxyphone
Saxephone
Saxafone

Obviously, some unknown traveler--drunk, stoned, or simply Spell-Check deprived--had been penning a postcard or letter when he or she ran headlong into Dr. Sax's marvelous instrument.

I have no idea how the problem was resolved, but the confused attempt struck me as a little poem, an ode to the challenges of our written language."
(Tom Robbins, "Send Us a Souvenir From the Road." Wild Ducks Flying Backward, Bantam, 2005)

Alternate Spellings: wordplay, word-play