A pun is a play on words, centering on a word with more than one meaning or words that sound alike. A pun is most often used for humor, but puns can also make you think differently about a subject, particularly if it introduces ambiguity or changes the original meaning of the text.
Many puns rely on simple homophones, or words that sound alike. For instance, take the following pun from comedian George Carlin:
In this case, the word "non-prophet" plays on the more common "nonprofit." Non-prophet means without a religious founder or leader, while nonprofit means without earning money. Both sound alike, and the pun works because both definitions of the homophone are true. Most puns are designed for the ear rather than the eye, as homophones may or may not be spelled alike.
Classic works of literature are full of puns, as writers across the ages have played with the sounds and meanings of the English language to achieve interesting effects. You can find puns in literary works from the Bible to Shakespeare, to modern poetry. Puns continue to resonate with readers. Consider the examples below for a sense of how writers have used puns in their work.
One of the oldest puns in the world comes from the book of Judges, which was written some 3,000 years ago. The tenth chapter of the book of Judges tells the tale of 30 sons, who “rode around on thirty burros and lived in thirty boroughs.” While these words rhyme in English, they were also very similar in the original Hebrew: ayirim for burros and ayarim for boroughs.
Because the Bible was not originally written in English, not all puns in the text come across in translation. Most Christians are familiar with a pun attributed to Jesus, however, when he said, "Upon this rock I will build my church.” He was speaking of Peter, whose name means "rock" in Greek (the similarity is still strong in Romance languages today).
Perhaps no writer is better known for the use of puns than William Shakespeare.
He plays with “tide” and “tied” in Two Gentlemen of Verona:
Panthino: Away, ass! You’ll lose the tide if you tarry any longer.
Launce: It is no matter if the tied were lost; for it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied.
Panthino: What’s the unkindest tide?
Launce: Why, he that’s tied here, Crab, my dog.
In the opening of Richard III, the sun refers to the blazing sun on Edward IV’s banner and the fact that he is the son of the Duke of York:
"Now is thewinter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York."
In this line from Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare plays on the different meanings of heavy (which also means sad) and light:
"Give me a torch: I am not for this ambling; Being but heavy I will bear the light."
Later in Romeo and Juliet a morbid pun comes from a fatally-stabbed Mercutio, where grave means serious, but also alludes to his imminent death:
“ask for me tomorrow, you shall find me a grave man.”
Great poetic works have included interesting puns as well.
John Donne often used puns in his poetry. In his “Hymn to God the Father,” he plays with his name and the name of his wife, Anne More:
“When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done, For I have more.”
In his book Ulysses, the great Irish writer James Joyce included this brief poem:
If you see kay
Tell him he may
See you in tea
Tell him from me.
The words to the first and third lines of the poem, when spoken aloud, also sound like letters of the alphabet. These letters spell out some taboo swear words in English.
Ambrose Bierce makes a pun on Robert Browning’s name in his poem “With a Book:”
"Ah, nothing more obscure than Browning
Harryette Mullen uses the multiple meanings of “slip” to good effect in her poem “Of a Girl in White:”
“Her starched petticoats giving him the slip.”
Novels and plays also benefit from the addition of puns to add humor and also give nuance to the story.
There are many examples of puns in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which help to convey the strangeness of Wonderland. Here Alice confuses “tale” and “tail:”
“Mine is a long and a sad tale!" said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing. "It is a long tail, certainly," said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse's tail; "but why do you call it sad?" And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking.”
Madeleine L’Engle plays on the phrase “happy medium” in A Wrinkle in Time. It is a phrase said to Meg more than once, such as when Mrs Murray says: “A happy medium is something I wonder if you’ll ever find.” It is also the name of a character who is a cheerful psychic living on a neutral planet.
A pun is built right into the title of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. In the beginning the main character is neither earnest or Ernest, but by the end of the play he is both:
"I’ve realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
In this line from Great Expectations Charles Dickens uses the different meanings of the word “point” to good effect:
"They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation to me, every now and then, and stick the point into me."
There are also many clever puns about authors and their works. These literary jokes rely on puns for their laughs:
You can find puns in works of great literature or even in silly jokes about famous writers. Authors have used puns over the centuries to entertain perceptive readers and make reading more interesting by injecting some clever word play. Puns are not just humorous, they can also make you pause and consider what you've read from a different angle, giving you a deeper appreciation for a writer's talent and grasp of the language.
See more funny puns: