Pun (paronomasia)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Pun (paronomasia)

Pun (paronomasia): A rhetorical figure involving a play on words that capitalizes on a similarity in spelling and/or pronunciation between words that have different meanings. Alternatively, a pun may employ one word that has multiple meanings. Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, most puns have been used for comic effect.

EXAMPLES: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1596) plays on the words maiden, head, and maidenhead (which in Renaissance times referred to virginity) in the following passage:

Sampson: When I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids — I shall cut off their heads.

Gregory: The heads of the maids?

Sampson: Ay, the heads of the maids or their maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt.

Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (1952) puns on the word “grave” as a noun (a burial place) and an adjective (serious):

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The 1997 cloning of a sheep named Dolly spawned countless journalistic puns, from “When Will We See Ewe Again?” to “Will There Ever Be Another Ewe?” to “Dolly’s Creators Find Wolf in Sheep’s Cloning.”