Thomas Hood's Puns

Note: Most of the graphics below were not originally associated with the works they accompany. They are meant to illustrate other treatments of the same or similar subjects. Their sources are show in their captions or when you hold the mouse cursor over them.

"Faithless Nelly Gray," Whims and Oddities, 3rd ed. (London: Lupton Relfe, 1828), 139-142.

illustration of a pun

This comic poem begins with several puns:

   Ben Battle was a soldier bold,
   And used to war's alarms;
   But a cannon-ball took off his legs,
   So he laid down his arms!

Having lost his legs, ironically-named Ben Battle puts down his weapon ("laid down his arms") and quits fighting. There is an unambiguous sense pun on legs and arms.

There is an unambiguous sound pun on bold (fearless, daring) and bowled [over] (by a cannonball). There is another on alarms; without legs Ben is now "all arms."

When Ben returns home, his sweetheart will have nothing to do with him.

   O Nelly Gray! O, Nelly Gray!
   Is this your love so warm?
   The love that loves a scarlet coat,
   Should be more uniform!

There is an unambiguous sense pun -- a "scarlet coat" is part of a soldier's "uniform." There is also an unambiguous sound pun on uniform; as a noun it refers to the soldier's outfit and as an adjective it refers to her love which should be consistent.

   "Why, then," said she, "you've lost the feet
   Of legs in war's alarms,
   And now you cannot wear your shoes
   Upon your feats of arms!"

The illustration above shows two soldiers who must achieve their "feats of arms" with their "feets."

"Ode (J****N farewell!)," in The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 5 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 466-467.

illustration of a pun

A writer's attempts to be a famous poet have attracted the notice of reviewers who have panned his work.

   I cannot live an Author long!
   When I did write, O I did wrong
   To aim at being great;

This is a simple unambiguous sense pun based on the association of right (write) with wrong.

"Ode to Mr. Graham, the Aeronaut," Odes and Addresses to Great People (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, 1825), 1-13.

a balloon being pulled by birds

The speaker imagines flying in a balloon and looking down on London.

   Are those the London Docks? —- that channel,
   The mighty Thames? -— a proper kennel
   For that small Isle of Dogs!

The Thames was both a symbol of England's commercial success and naval power and an embarrassing open sewer from which some of London's poorest made their livings. It once surrounded the Isle of Dogs and confined the inhabitants like a dog kennel. It also served as a kennel (a drainage ditch) for the Isle of Dogs. This is an ambiguous inclusive statement pun; the "mighty Thames" is both a ditch and an enclosing barrier.

"Mermaid at Margate," Whims and Oddities, 3rd ed. (London: Lupton Relfe, 1828), 44-49.

illustration of a pun

A mermaid takes a fishmonger out to sea and leaves him on an island as punishment for killing her father and sister. As the tide rises he fears he will drown.

   And Christians love in the turf to lie,
   Not in watery graves to be;
   Nay, the very fishes will sooner die
   On land than in the sea.

The pun is on sooner meaning "prefer" and more quickly. Fish will die more quickly (will sooner) on land than in water. Christians prefer to (would sooner) be buried on land ("turf") than in "watery graves." The speaker says this is also true of fish which prefer to (would sooner die) die on land than in the sea. Whether it's true or not, it's an ambiguous inclusive statement pun.

illustration of a pun

He is desperate to find some means of escape.

   Had there been but a smuggler's cargo adrift,
   One tub, or keg, to be seen,
   It might have given his spirits a lift,
   Or an anker where Hope might lean!

There is an unambiguous sense pun on spirits. If he could find a floating keg (a container for distilled spirits) it would lift his spirits. The pun on anker is an ambiguous inclusive word pun. If there were an anker (a large container for wine) nearby he could lean on to keep himself afloat; the anker would also serve as an anchor, something stable to fix his hope on.

   At last, his lingering hopes to buoy,
   He saw a sail and a mast,
   And called "Ahoy!" -- but it was not a hoy,
   And so the vessel went past.

There is an unambiguous sound pun on hoy which is a type of boat.

The Epping Hunt (London: Charles Tilt, 1829).

This humorous ballad tells the story of John Huggins' (a provisions monger) experience at the Epping Hunt.

   So he drew on his Sunday boots,
   Of lustre superfine;
   The liquid black they wore that day,
   Was Warren-ted to shine.

The inclusive statement pun says both that the boots were guaranteed to shine and that they were shiny because Warren's blackening had been applied to them.

illustration of a pun
   But Huggins, like a wary man,
   Was ne'er from saddle cast;
   Resolved, by going very slow,
   On sitting very fast.

The unambiguous sense pun is based on slow and fast which are antonyms when referring to speed. But fast has other meanings which result in an ambiguous exclusive word pun: Huggins can insure that he sits fast (securely in place) by traveling slowly and "sitting fast" (continuing as he is, not changing).

   Idlers to wit -- no Guardians some,
   Of Tattlers in a squeeze;
   Ramblers, in heavy-carts and vans,
   Spectators, up in trees.

There are several unambiguous sound puns in the enumeration of the people watching the start of the hunt; each type sounds identical to a periodical (Idler, Guardian, Tattler, Rambler, Spectator).

illustration of a pun

The stag, being pursued by the hunters,

   Now flew to "hills we know not of,"
   Now, nun-like, took the vale.

The ambiguous exclusive word pun functions as a simile. "Took the vale" brings to mind "took the veil" and that refers back to "nun-like." As a woman might take the veil to escape the world and save her soul, the stag escapes into the valley to save its life.

The illustration at the left is a visual pun on "taking the veil"; a vail is a gratuity given to servants by a visitor.

The hunters chase the stag, rushing to and fro, some on horseback and some on foot:

   The maddest horses never knew
   Mad staggers such as they!

There are two puns in this statement. "Staggers" refers to a nervous-system disease of horses and cattle which causes them to stagger; they appear to be mad, crazy. It also refers to the excited (mad) huntsmen ("they"). In the same way that those who hunt whales are whalers, those who hunt stags are staggers. The other pun is based on knew meaning "acquainted with" and "experienced." The ambiguous inclusive statement pun says both that no horse that experienced the disease staggered about the way the huntsmen did and that no horse had ever been acquainted with men who staggered around like mad men as the huntsmen did.

illustration of a pun
   As nags are meant to leap, she [Nature] puts
   A frog in every hoof!

A frog is a part of a horse's hoof.

After the hunt the horses are unhitched and unsaddled; they rest while the men enjoy post-chase beverages.

   And many a horse was taken out
   Of saddle, and of shaft;
   And men, by dint of drink, became
   The only "beasts of draught."

"Beast of draught" refers to draft (draught) horses which carry or pull heavy loads and to the men who become like beasts "by dint of drink" -- from taking too many drafts (draughts) of alcoholic drinks.

"The Drowning Ducks," The Comic Annual, 2nd ed. (London: Charles Tilt, 1830), 39-43.

illustration of a pun

Mrs. Bond enjoys watching the ducks on her pond, but every time ducklings hatch they disappear. Eventually she drains the pond and discovers that eels have been eating them.

   They [ducklings] were web-footed too to see,
   As ducks and spiders ought to be!

This ambiguous inclusive word pun is interesting. Web-footed doesn't have multiple meanings; it only refers to animals with webbed toes (like ducks). However, the reference to spiders creates another meaning: having the ability to walk on a web without sticking (like spiders).

"The Kangaroos: A Fable," The Comic Annual, 2nd ed. (London: Charles Tilt, 1830), 101-104.

illustration of a pun

Two kangaroo parents ponder what would be the best trade for their young son. They don't have much time to decide because little kangaroos grow up quickly.

   About some two months off the lap --
   They're not so long in arms as men are.

Joeys are "off the lap" (can get about on their own) after only two months. They don't have to be carried as long as human babies do (remain "so long in arms"). This also refers to the fact that kangaroos have shorter arms than humans. They eventually decide to "make the imp a short-hand writer!"

"Look Before You Leap," The Comic Annual, 2nd ed. (London: Charles Tilt, 1830), 134-138.

illustration of a pun

A man who wants to become an actor escapes his father's candle-making business and elopes with a young woman to London. Rebuffed by theater managers he falls into debt:

I had soon nothing but musty bread on which to feed my hopes, and hopeful wife.

This type of ambiguous inclusive word pun is called syllepsis: one word is grammatically related to other words in a statement, but the relationships have different meanings. The ambiguity results from using feed to mean "provide food to" (his wife) and "sustain" (his hopes).

"Ben Bluff. A Pathetic Ballad," The Comic Annual (London: A. H. Baily and Co., 1839), 62-67.

A former whaler has a dream about whaling, jumps out of bed and throws a harpoon at his wife. Uninjured she says:

   If the love of harpooning so strong must prevail,
   Take a whale for a wife, not a wife for a whale.

This is also an example of syllepsis -- an ambiguous inclusive word pun based on take: its first use means "marry" or "select" and its second, implied use is "perceive" or "mistake."

"Pompey's Ghost," Hood's Own: or, Laughter from Year to Year 2nd Series (London: Edward Moxon, 1869), 195.

   At last I got so sick of life,
   And sick of being dosed,
   One Monday morning I gave up
   My physic and the ghost!

Another example of syllepsis; "gave up": stopped using and died

"Stanzas on Coming of Age," The Comic Annual (London: A. H. Baily and Co., 1836), 83-90.

illustration of a pun

Having just come of age a young man laments the fact that he has received no inheritance.

   I know where great estates descend
   That here is Boyhood's legal end,
   And easily can comprehend
   How "Manors make the Man."

This inclusive word pun is interesting; the double meanings contradict each other. By asserting that "manors" (real estate, wealthy acquaintances and inherited deference) make the man, he repudiates the cliche that "manners" (conducting oneself as a gentleman) make the man. The first requires wealth; the second does not.

"The Ocean," The Comic Annual (London: A. H. Baily and Co., 1836), 106-137.

illustration of a pun

A man describes a storm at sea.

It was during a voyage to Margate, many summers ago -- before steam was -- that the little episode occurred which I am going to relate....

This form of the inclusive word pun is called antanaclasis: a word or phrase -- in this case was -- is repeated in a statement with a different meaning each time.

The first time was is used it means "occurred"; the second time it means "existed": the storm occurred many summers ago before steam-powered ships existed. Rearranging the sentence makes the contrast clearer: "Before steam was, it was during a voyage...."

"The Echo" (March 1844) in The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 6 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 436-437.

illustration of a pun

The editor of a weekly periodical says "... if I do brood too much at my desk it's because there's a brood expected from me once a week."

Brood is repeated twice, first as a verb and then as a noun and each has two meanings. The editor incubates or sits on eggs (broods) in order to hatch a new clutch of birds (a brood) each week. The editor thinks or acts moodily or anxiously (broods) because he must produce a new batch or collection (brood) of articles each week. Metaphorically, his desk is a nest.

York and Lancaster, or, A School Without Scholars, in Whimsicalities: A Periodical Gathering by Thomas Hood (London: E. Moxon, Son & Co., 1870), 1-27.

illustration of a pun

In this play Master Timothy used to attend Clapham school where he was treated well, but now he is the only pupil at a school (run by an ex-horsedealer) where he receives many slaps but little to eat.

   The Reverend Doctor Monk, Sir,
   Was very grave and prim,
   And a matter of six foot high, Sir,
   We all look'd up to him

The double meaning of look'd up to results in an ambiguous inclusive statement pun: the students look up to Doctor Monk because he is both taller and admired, respected.

Our Family. A Domestic Novel, in The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 6 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 1-149.

illustration of graverobbers at work

Hood's novel Our Family was unfinished at his death. Subtitled "A Domestic Novel" it is about a poor, kind, parish physician, his family and servants. He comes under suspicion of being a "resurrectionist" and the town turns against him.1 The novel is quite good and contains several interesting characters, including Mr. Postle, the doctor's assistant, who solves problems using diseases and medicines as metaphors, and Kezia, a sleepwalking servant, who is plain, honest, loyal and outspoken.

Most of the humor is not based on puns. For example, Kezia doesn't like an uncle who comes visiting. After he kisses the family's twin children "she wiped their dear little faces directly, as if she thought they would catch his beard" (75).

There are also puns. A woman comes into the surgery where there is a "wooden arm-chair devoted to the accommodation of patients or impatients awaiting the making up of their prescriptions" (86).

She says: "But I'm not come about myself, but my sister, who is troubled about her legs -- she has such very coarse veins" (117).

The pun is based on very coarse veins sounding like "varicose veins" (which might be described as coarse). This type of pun is called a mondegreen: a person substitutes one phrase for another that he or she has misheard. They often result from mishearing song lyrics: "José can you see by the dawn's early light" and "Lucy in disguise with diamonds."

A mondegreen is similar to a malaprop which is the inappropriate substitution of one word for another; Mrs. Malaprop says "illiterate [obliterate] him, I say, quite from your memory."2 A mondegreen is the result of a simple mishearing; the woman in the surgery has heard "varicose veins" many times but has never seen it in print (she probably can't read); her substitution is logical. A malaprop, however, occurs even though the person has seen the word in print; it usually reflects some degree of ignorant pretentiousness.

Hood puns on hood

There appear to be only two occasions when Hood made a pun on his own name; both occurred late in his life. The illustration below was made about six months before his death.3

illustration of a pun

In "The Portrait" Hood responded to claims that in his recently-finished portrait he looks melancholy and grave: Against such an inference, however, I solemnly protest, and if it be the fault of my features, I do not mind telling my face to its face that it insinuates a false Hood, and grossly misrepresents a person notorious amongst friends for laughing at strange times and odd places, and in particular when he has the worst of the rubber.4

See also

Introduction to Thomas Hood

Thomas Hood on Punning

A Short Introduction to the Pun

A Modest Defense of the Pun

Visual Puns


1Resurrectionists would remove fresh bodies from graves to sell to medical schools or individual physicians for studying anatomy. In at least three works (and some illustrations) Hood treats the subject with punning humor: "Mary's Ghost," "Jack Hall," and "The Dead Robbery."

2Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals (1775), I, ii.

3"The Echo" [June 1844], The Works of Thomas Hood, ed. Epes Sargent, Vol 6 (New York: George P. Putnam, 1862), 439.

4Hood's Own: or, Laughter from Year to Year (London: A. H. Baily and Co., 1839), 242.