Let’s Hear it for the Lowly Pun!

Punny Face

This post is by Maeve Maddox.

By definition a pun is “a play on words.” The “play” may be on the sound of a word or the similarity of a phrase to a well-known saying. Sometimes the pronunciation being played on is a stretch and deserves a groan, but sometimes the relationship is extremely apt and deserves the reward of an appreciative laugh.

H. W. Fowler (Modern English Usage) has this to say about those spoilsports who groan at puns regardless of whether the pun is funny or not:

The assumption that puns are per se contemptible betrayed by the habit of describing every pun not as a pun, but as a bad pun or a feeble pun, is a sign at once of sheepish docility and desire to seem superior. Puns are good, bad, and indifferent, and only those who lack the wit to make them are unaware of the fact.

People pun in every language, but English, with all our words with multiple meanings, is especially rich in opportunity. One of the beauties of the pun is that even little children can make them up. They’re especially common as the answer in riddles:

Little Girl: What did the beaver say to the tree?
Little Boy: Nice gnawing you.

Little Boy: What’s white, light and sugary, and swings from trees?
Little Girl: A meringue-utan.

Teacher: What do you get if you divide the circumference of a pumpkin by its diameter?
Student: Pumpkin pi.

Puns are often the punch line of an ordinary joke:

Two vultures boarded an airplane, each carried two dead raccoons. The stewardess looked at them and said, “I’m sorry, gentlemen, only one carrion allowed per passenger.”

The humor of some puns derives from a familiar expression in which one or more of the words is used in a different sense.

In the slogan Power to the People, the word “power” refers to political power. Put the same slogan on an electric co-op truck and you have a pun.

Sometimes the pun depends on rhythm and syllable count to suggest a familiar phrase:

Slogan of a diaper service: Rock a dry baby. (“Rock-a-bye Baby,” first line of an English lullaby)

Sign on an antique store: Den of antiquity (“den of iniquity,” common phrase used to describe a place where people do depraved things)

Quotation from playwright George S. Kaufman: One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian. (“One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” English proverb.)

When a pun is clever, the punster deserves the reward of a genuine laugh.

For more puns, check out these two sites:

* WordInfo
* Dave Fisher’s article on puns

What about you? Got a punny comment for us?

Maeve Maddox is a writer for Daily Writing Tips, a blog focused on grammar, punctuation and spelling tips.

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Reader Comments (53)

  1. says

    I think people are just too used to saying “excuse the pun” or “no pun intended” therefore never allowing the listener/reader to figure it out themselves and decide whether its funny or not.

  2. says

    I think it’s definitely worth mentioning that Shakespeare often used puns to convey hidden meaning in his plays, and few would argue that it’s a feeble device. Although I’d say the examples here are somewhat silly, puns can be used in very creative ways.

  3. Françoise Olive says

    i started writing a personal pamphlet (unpublished), i am French. The front title is : ‘mentir de justesse’ (justified lie); title on the back is ‘M’en tire de justesse’ (narrow escape). French are good at ‘pun’ or double-entendre; check Serge Gainsbourg’s lyrics to name just one clever virtuoso in this field. i have a personal mental filing cabinet that uses a play of abbreviations with double meanings: SS might mean ‘Sisterly Soul ‘or ‘Sorry Sod’. i have an equation; FF = FF (Friendly Fiend = False Friend). One can draw more complex equations and try extract the square root.
    Love the blogs, informative, witty, never boring, thanks

  4. says

    My favorite was in a camping store off-season: Now is the winter of our discount tent. And I think the best joke of all time is “How do you kill a circus? Go for the juggler.”

  5. says

    I think that the difficult thing is getting a pun mixed with your text without having to force it. That is what makes them funny, and that is where most people fail.

  6. says

    Puns (or dajare) play a large part of comedy in Japan. They’re obviously hard to understand for non-native speakers, but I still find it funny when Japanese friends try to out-pun each other.

  7. Françoise Olive says

    Does anyone know the book:”Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames” (Mother Goose Rhymes) aka “The d’Antin Manuscript”? (1788 – published in 1967). Extract:
    Un petit d’un petit (Humpty Dumpty)
    S’étonne aux Halles (Sat on a wall)
    Un petit d’un petit (Humpty Dumpty)
    Ah! degrés te fallent (Had a great fall)

  8. Françoise Olive says

    Just a French say, David. It just means: “My heart on the right side, my guard on my left one” Sinister?

  9. says

    Kids and puns is an entertaining little universe because they can be so out there. When my son was very young I thanked him for doing some little chore and he answered “You’re Velcro.” We still say it in the family 12 years later.

  10. says

    I was thinking of enrolling in night courses to be an Aztec priest. But it involves a lot of sacrifices, on my part.

    Spider Robinson’s “Callahan” stories are rife with puns, some of which take half a page to set up, if you’re looking for more elaborate examples.

  11. Françoise Olive says

    Child’s pun
    To be or not be, that’s the question?
    To be when, where, who, why?
    When: I want to be now, I am
    Where: I like France, I am French
    Who: I am Françoise Olive
    Why: Olive, I like, the fruit of the tree of wisdom
    Well, with all these questions starting with a W, you must like Words!
    I like surfing the WWW, I Would like to surf forever.

  12. Françoise Olive says

    Following bit, it can be endless, sorry
    God to the girl child who want to be born
    Ws are for men: they have Worlds to build.
    Os suit you better, I know, it seems very much like a zero (Zoro as well)
    Os suit little girls, they can daisy chain them into nice bracelets and necklaces. A single O is a nice collar, but it can make a nice Halo for your favourite patron.
    Stop Winging little Woman! Woman? What was I thinking, I should have called you Oman.

  13. says

    Puns are fantastic… I am also annoyed as is Tom about the “excuse the pun” and “no pun intended”… I understand if the pun was a humorous accident, but if it’s meant, no need to point it out… let it lay there as a hidden humorous gem for those smart enough to figure it out.

  14. says

    Let me try this one – it helps if you think with a thick Scottish brogue accent, doesn’t work otherwise…

    A Scotsman walks into a bakery and looks at the display. He points to a cake and says to the baker, “Is that a macaroon or a meringue?” The baker replies, “No, you’re not wrong. It’s a macaroon.”

    (I know,…………….Ouch!)

  15. Daniel Foster says

    ‘Den of Antiquity’ = awesome.

    I once saw a plumber’s van with the tagline:
    “A straight flush beats a full house.”

  16. says

    I once worked with a famous CCO who looooved puns, and I’d groan nearly every time he’d hand me a tag line to work into a piece of music . . . but I’ll be damned if they weren’t consistently sticky, and led to some good creative.

    I still tend to shy away from puns–they seem too easy.
    If you’re considering a pun as a creative solution because nothing else is occurring to you, check put my post how to break through creative inertia:




  17. says

    (To set this up for the non-USA crowd … as I understand it, commercial trucks in the States have to bear a sticker that specifies the weight of the truck, both loaded and unloaded. The weights are referred to as Gross and Net Weight.)

    A company in Minneapolis that rents, cleans, & services portable toilets adapted the sticker on their pumper trucks to read “8,000 pounds of very gross weight”.

  18. says

    My son’s first joke was a pun, and it was before he could even talk. We were sitting at the kitchen table. I had him on my lap and was just knocking on the wooden tabletop. Then I started doing “knock, knock — who’s there?” repeating this to him for a while. At one point he just started laughing. I asked him what was so funny (he couldn’t talk, but he was at that age where he understood everything). He just pointed down at the mat by the back door. Knock, knock. Shoes there!


  19. says

    Although I do a lot of copywriting both for internal purposes and clients, I really don’t consider myself a professional copywriter.

    Nevertheless, all the copywriting training that I’ve ever had said that humor and puns don’t have a place in direct response marketing.

    It’s not designed to be cute, funny or creative.
    Direct response marketing is just designed to either make the sale or get the inquiry for the soft offer.

    So how does this rule, that I always thought was set in stone by copywriting gurus, mesh up with the idea of using puns?

    Thanks for the great post and for getting me to rethink some of the copywriting conventional wisdom out there.

  20. says

    So how does this rule, that I always thought was set in stone by copywriting gurus, mesh up with the idea of using puns?

    I think puns are appropriate at times in content marketing (blogging), but care should be taken when using them in sales copy. I’ve seen it done skillfully before, but generally you want to avoid “losing” the reader in a direct response situation.

  21. Francoise Olive says

    Very disappointed some of my puns have been apparently censored. Someone afraid of his own shadow? And what about free speech and fun? bye, bye coppyblogger.
    i’m just a 60 years old graphic designer waiting for a job that might not come. Today, i want to be 8 years old again, but waiting for your permission is a waste of time.

  22. Francoise Olive says

    Today is re-creation. I need a new body, anyone with a spare one? Second-hand ones accepted, but not from dubious sources.

  23. says

    Re: db’s “sinister” comment – perhaps it was a pun, given that the word is associated with “left” (eg. sinistral means left handed)?

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