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."
    (Benjamin Franklin)
  • Double Entendre
    "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."
    (Mae West)
  • Malaphor
    "Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears."
    (Senator Barack Obama, Oct. 2008)
  • Malapropism
    "Why not? Play captains against each other, create a little dysentery in the ranks."
    (Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos)
  • Paronomasia and Puns
    "Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted."
    (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.
  • Syllepsis
    "When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my 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."
    (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.


    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)

    James Joyce's Word Play

    --Rats! bullowed the Mookse most telesphorously, the concionator, and the sissymusses and the zozzymusses in their robenhauses quailed to hear his tardeynois at all for you cannot wake a silken nouse out of a hoarseoar. Blast yourself and your anathomy infairioriboos! No, hang you for an animal rurale! I am superbly in my supremest poncif! Abase you, baldyqueens! Gather behind me, satraps! Rots!

    --I am till infinity obliged with you, bowed the Gripes, his whine having gone to his palpruy head.

    I am still always having a wish on all my extremities. By the watch, what is the time, pace?

    --Figure it! The pining peever! To a Mookse!

    --Ask my index, mund my achilles, swell my obolum, woshup my nase serene, answered the Mookse, rapidly by turning clement, urban, eugenious and celestian in the formose of good grogory humours. Quote awhore? That is quite about what I came on my missions with my intentions laudibiliter to settle with you, barbarousse. Let thor be orlog. Let Pauline be Irene. Let you be Beeton. And let me be Los Angeles. Now measure your length. Now estimate my capacity. Well, sour? Is this space of our couple of hours too dimensional for you, temporiser? Will you give you up? Como? Fuert it?
    (James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 1939)

    Alternate Spellings: wordplay, word-play