A pun (also known as paronomasia) is a deliberate confusion of similar-sounding words or phrases for rhetorical effect, whether humorous or serious. Humor is more commonly the intent of puns in recent times, but formerly the serious pun was an important and standard rhetorical or poetic device, as in "made glorious summer by this son (sun) of York" in Shakespeare's Richard III. Another pun of serious intent is found in the Bible: Matthew 16.18:
"Thou art Peter [Greek Πετρος, Petros], and upon this rock [Greek πετρα, petra] I will build my church."
- (Note that while petra is "rock", the word for "stone" in general is petros, or πετρος.)
The word pun itself is thought to be originally a contraction of the (now archaic) pundigrion. This latter term is thought to have originated from punctilious, which itself derived from the Italian puntiglio (originally meaning "a fine point"), diminutive of punto, "point", from the Latin punctus, past participle of pungere, "to prick." These etymological sources are reported in the Oxford English Dictionary, which nonetheless labels them "conjecture".
Puns are subdivided into several varieties:
- Homographic, where the pun exploits multiple meanings of essentially the same word. For example: "Being in politics is just like playing golf: you are trapped in one bad lie after another."
- Ideophonic , where words of similar but not identical sound are confused. For example: "A chicken crossing the road is poultry (poetry) in motion."
- Homophonic, in which the words are pronounced identically but are of distinct and separate origin. For example "I've no idea how worms reproduce but you often find them in pairs (pears)"
The compound pun is one in which multiple puns are colocated for additional and amplified effect. An example of this is the following story:
Three brothers asked their mother to think of a name for their cattle-ranch. She suggested Focus Ranch, which rather puzzled them until she explained that "Focus means where the sun's rays meet (sons raise meat)."
Sometimes puns can be used in a name. For instance the name Justin Tyme sounds like "just in time". This sort of naming is found in many works of fiction, for example, Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, The Eyre Affair, Asterix, The Simpsons, the Carmen Sandiego computer games, and just about everything Spider Robinson has ever written, especially the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon series.
Many puns are created without the knowledge of the speaker, For example: A TV show once depicted a man who had been impaled by an anchor. When interviewed the surgeon who performed the operation stated the common phrase "He sailed through it". With the pun being that an anchor is used during sailing.
In the UK, the sign "mind your head" used on low ceilings and doorways or in busses is sometimes replaced by the double-homograph sign "Duck or grouse?" ("grouse" being British slang for "complain").
Puns are also found in serious literature. See Alexander Pope, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, and others discussed under word play.
European heraldry contains the technique of canting arms, which can be considered punning.
Official puns are rare, but there are a few:
K-9, pronounced "canine", for war dogs or police dogs follows the military pattern of designations, such as G-2.
- "Curb your dog", the command on former New York City street signs that combined a requirement to leash a dog with a requirement that dogs be taken to the gutter for their "business". Replaced after pooper-scooper laws were passed.
- The US 4th Infantry Division patch has four Ivy leaves on it, from the Roman numeral IV or 4. (This may be an example of canting arms--see above).
- Although the amphibious military truck called a DUKW may appear to have a punning name, in fact the designation follows standard military vehicle designations from the World War 2 period.
Numerous pun formats exist:
- "The pun is mightier than the sword." - James Joyce in ???
- "As different as York from Leeds" - James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, a play on "As different as chalk from cheese".
- "A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket." -John Dennis, 1781
- "He that would pun, would pick a pocket" —Alexander Pope, punster
- "Blunt and I made atrocious puns. I believe, indeed, that Miss Blunt herself made a little punkin, as I called it" —Henry James
- "Pun (n.): the lowest form of humour" —Samuel Johnson, lexicographer
- "…but the height of wit" —common rebuttal to the above
- "The eleventh pun always gets a laugh, even if no pun in ten did." —Anon.