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What is a Pun?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Anyone who has ever heard a knock-knock joke, a "Little Mary" or "Tom Swifty" story, or a "daffynition" of a common word, has experienced the sometimes groan-inducing form of humor known as a pun. Puns are not always meant to be humorous, but they are meant to be a clever play on words. From a literary standpoint, the art of creating one is also known as paronomasia, although that word has fallen out of favor in modern times. A pun can be constructed in several different ways, based on the meaning or sonics of the words involved. Words could sound alike but have clearly different meanings, like "jeans" and "genes," or they could be spelled the same but have two or more definitions, like the word "club."

A knock-knock joke's humor depends heavily on the use of a pun: "Knock, Knock." "Who's there?" "Orange." "Orange who?" "Orange you going to let me in?" The word orange sounds very similar to the contraction aren't, so the joke is homophonic. Other knock-knock jokes use the double sounds of common words as part of the set-up and punchline. A pun is usually delivered without much fanfare or build-up, but more as a clever quip or quote. This is why most knock-knock jokes are mercifully short.

A good pun often hinges on the duality of meaning found in many words. On the television show "Frasier," the title character hosts a meeting of his somewhat dubious fan club. His brother Niles is introduced to the group, whereupon he quips "After meeting all of you, I sorta wish I had a club myself." The humor comes from the dual meaning of the word club. While Frasier meant it in the sense of a group, Niles cleverly twisted it to imply an actual heavy weapon. The success of the joke largely depends on the subtlety and cleverness of the wordplay. One that is too obvious usually evokes a groan from the audience.

There are a number of famous sayings which use the form of a pun for their humor. President Harry Truman was known to invite people to his home state to sample his wife's cooking, saying "Missouri loves company." Playwright Oscar Wilde was well-known for his use of puns to soften his often caustic observations. Wilde once described work as the "curse of the drinking classes," which cleverly played off the duality of "working classes" and "drinking glasses." Comedian Groucho Marx used to claim he went elephant hunting in Alabama, where the "tusks are looser." This was a play on the similar sounding Alabama city called Tuscaloosa.

A pun can run the gamut from obscure to patently obvious, but better ones tend to survive from generation to generation. Authors from Ambrose Bierce to Jeff Foxworthy to Dave Barry have all created humorous dictionaries based on actual words with fictitious definitions or invented words with real definitions. These collections point out the inherent humor of a well-crafted pun. While some may consider them to be one of the lowest forms of humor, others applaud the ingenuity and command of the language that they display.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon305641 — On Nov 26, 2012

Can someone give me another example?

By anon171261 — On Apr 29, 2011

You would say "no pun intended" after you have made the remark. Especially if it would be rude or distasteful. A pun is generally meant to be funny. The "hand" situation would not be funny.

Sometimes puns happen by accident, in which case you should clarify that you were not trying to make light of a serious situation.

By BoatHugger — On Nov 29, 2010

@alex94: I hope this example doesn't offend anyone but it is a great example of an incident when you could justify saying "no pun intended".

Say there's a man who is missing a hand on one side and he is trying to shop for groceries. He is having a hard time because he keeps dropping things. A woman comes up to him and asks him "do you need a hand"? After that, she says "no pun intended".

By alex94 — On Nov 28, 2010

I understand what a pun is, but in what way would you use the term "no pun intended"?

By anon44183 — On Sep 05, 2009

God I laughed so hard.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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