English playwright Samuel Johnson referred to punning as the lowest form of humour, but Alfred Hitchcock, famous Hollywood producer and director, said puns are the highest form of literature… – Roopa Banerjee
“You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass,” said Douglas Adams (1952-2001), British author, essayist and satirist famously. The reason why this quote tickles the funny bone is because of the clever use of puns. In the first sentence, Adams uses puns for the comparable sounds of “tune a” and “tuna,” while in the second sentence, he plays on the two connotations of the word “bass” — the musical instrument, which is also a fish species.
A pun is a literary device that plays with words that have multiple meanings or with words that sound similar but have different meanings. Puns are used humourously in most cases and for their rhetorical effect.
However, puns are not as modern as commonly believed. They date back to the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian civilisations. In ancient Egypt, puns were heavily used in the development of myths and interpretation of dreams. The communication systems of Sumerian and Egyptian civilisations, including Egyptian hieroglyphs, were based on punning. Puns also have a long history in literature. For example, the Roman playwright Plautus was famous for his puns and word games.
Aka paranomasia, there are various types of puns. The most common is the homophonic pun where homophones (word pairs which sound alike but do not have the same meaning) are used. For example, ‘Question: Why do we still have troops in Germany? Answer: To keep the Russians in Czech’.
In homographic pun, words used are homographs (same spelling but different meanings and sounds). For example, “The wild oats of my sow gave us many piglets”. The Douglas Adams quote at the start of this essay is also another example of a homographic pun.
A combination of homophonic and homographic pun is known as homonymic pun. For example, American writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) had joked, ‘Did you hear about the little moron who strained himself while running into the screen door?’ playing on strained as “to give much effort” and “to filter”.
Puns are often used in punch lines of jokes and witticisms. Such jokes are called feghoots — anecdotes that end with a line containing a pun for humorous effect.
A non-humorous pun is also a standard poetic device in literature. Among the famous writers who used puns are Alexander Pope, Robert Bloch, Lewis Carroll and John Donne. William Shakespeare is estimated to have used over 3,000 puns in his plays. For instance in Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” (son/sun).
There are varying opinions on whether puns should be used in literature. While the famous English playwright and poet Samuel Johnson disparagingly referred to punning as the lowest form of humour, Alfred Hitchcock, famous Hollywood producer and director, said they are the highest form of literature.
Due to the attention-grabbing quality of this literary device, puns are popularly used in naming places, characters, organisations and advertising slogans. Many restaurant and shop names use puns. For instance Cane & Able mobility healthcare, Sam & Ella’s Chicken Palace, Curl Up and Dye Hair Salon and Planet of the Grapes Wine and Spirits. Names of fictional characters also often carry puns. For example, a librarian in a Star Trek episode was named ‘Mr. Atoz’ (A to Z).
To end, here are some animal puns to stimulate your brain and brighten your day:
• The best way to communicate with a fish is to drop it a line.
• If you hear it from the horse’s mouth you’re listening to a neigh sayer.
• Sign at a deer crossing: The Buck Stops Here.
• A skunk fell into a river and stank to the bottom.
• A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.