A Short Introduction to the Pun
The pun is a figure of speech that uses both the sound and the sense of words to create ambiguity -- more than one meaning, interpretation, sense (polysemous). A pun need not be humorous.
Sound, sense and ambiguity are the three criteria. For example: She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her still. Because the adverbial form (meaning "anyway") and nounal form (meaning "distillation apparatus") of still sound identical the word is ambiguous; the sense is unclear. Further, the entire statement is ambiguous: It can mean "She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her anyway" and "She was only a whiskey maker's daughter, but he loved her distillation apparatus."
However, the term pun has been applied broadly to also include word play that exploits only sound or only sense without creating ambiguity. We cannot ignore the historical usage. Therefore, the term needs to be defined so as to include all usages and to differentiate among types. The following classification pretty much covers all types of puns:
A. Unambiguous pun: word play involving sound or sense without ambiguity
- 1. Sound pun: sound only
- 2. Sense pun: sense only
B. Ambiguous pun: figure of speech involving sound and sense that results in ambiguity
- 1. Word pun: word ambiguous only
- a. Exclusive word pun: one sense of the ambiguous word is used
- b. Inclusive word pun: multiple senses of the ambiguous word are used
- 2. Statement pun: statement ambiguous
- a. Exclusive statement pun: the statement means only one thing at a time
- b. Inclusive statement pun: the statement means two or more things at the same time
A. The unambiguous pun is word play that exploits the sound or sense of words in order to create a (usually) humorous effect without creating ambiguity. In the past other terms such as jingle and quibble were sometimes used for this type of pun. This is the type of pun most people are familiar with and the type most disparaged.
- A.1 The unambiguous sound pun depends upon words that sound similar. Sense is unimportant; the meanings of the words do not result in ambiguity. The following example is from a 19th-century burlesque: I fell in a ravine, with just one crack,/ And rose up quite a ra-vine maniac.1
- The unambiguous sound pun isn't always humorous.
Hamlet: What did you enact?
Polonius: I did enact Julius Caesar. I was kill'd i' th' Capitol; Brutus kill'd me.
Hamlet: It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there. (Hamlet, 3, 2, 103-106)5
- The puns on Capitol and capital and on Brutus and brute ("brutish") do not evoke humor or create ambiguity.
- A.2 The unambiguous sense pun depends upon words that are commonly associated or have related or contrasting meanings; sound is unimportant; there is no ambiguity. The following is from Thomas Hood's poem punningly titled "Please to Ring the Belle":
So he call'd upon Lucy -- 'twas just ten o'clock --
Like a spruce single man, with a smart double knock.
Now a hand-maid, whatever her fingers be at,
Will run like a puss when she hears a rat-tat:
So Lucy ran up -- and in two seconds more
Had question'd the stranger, and answer'd the door.2
Single ("man") contrasts with double ("knock"). Fingers are parts of a hand ("hand-maid"). Cat ("puss") is associated with rat ("rat-tat"). Questioned ("stranger") is the opposite of answered ("door").
B. An ambiguous pun is a figure of speech that exploits the fact that words sound similar but have different meanings in order to create ambiguity (which may be only momentary). Like all figures of speech the ambiguous pun seeks to achieve an effect, such as humor or irony, that goes beyond simply calling attention to itself.
- B.1 The word pun involves only word-ambiguity; the entire statement is not ambiguous.
- B.1.a With the exclusive word pun only one sense of the ambiguous word is used in the statement and the other(s) is implied.
- "We found oil" Tom gushed. Only the sense of gushed as "exclaimed" is used; the other meaning of "spouted in a stream" is implied because of the proximity of the word oil. The entire statement is unambiguous.
- B.1.b With the inclusive word pun multiple senses of the ambiguous word are used in the statement.
- He put out the lamp and the cat. The phrase put out is ambiguous; in the statement it is used to mean "turn off" and "place outside," but the entire statement is unambiguous.
- B.2 The statement pun uses word-ambiguity to create a statement that is ambiguous.
- B.2.a With the exclusive statement pun the statement means only one thing at a time; it may mean this or that but not both at the same time.
- You never hear owls argue; they just don't give a hoot. This can be interpreted two ways. First, you don't hear owls argue because they literally don't make noise (hoot) when they argue. Second, you don't hear them argue because they don't argue; they figuratively don't care enough (give a hoot) about things to argue about them. The entire statement is ambiguous and both interpretation makes sense, but not at the same time: we can't hear owls argue either for this reason or for that reason.
- B.2.b With the inclusive statement pun the statement means two or more things at the same time; it means this and that.
- A hard-boiled egg in the morning is hard to beat. The phrase hard to beat is ambiguous; it can mean "superlative" or "difficult to mix or stir." Further, the entire statement is ambiguous and both interpretations make sense at the same time: a hard-boiled egg is superlative in the morning and it is difficult to stir.
Many people believe that there is only one kind of pun and, if it's well-constructed, it makes us smile or laugh, but the unambiguous sound-pun and the ambiguous, inclusive, statement-pun are as different as the limerick and the sonnet.
1Henry J. Byron, Miss Eily O'Connor (London: Thomas Hailes Lacy, nd), 6.
2Thomas Hood, "Please to Ring the Belle," Whims and Oddities 3rd ed. (London: Lupton Relfe, 1828), 13).
Copyright © 2017 by George Tylutki. All rights reserved.