puns and double-meanings
clever and funny puns - new, original, classic, corny - amusing, educational, wordplay trivia and curiosities
A pun is a grammatical effect which exploits two words or expressions that sound the same or similar, but have two different meanings.
Separately the word pun may also refer to broader concepts and creative works of symbolism or metaphor; also to visual or figurative 'double-meanings', and to such effects which arise in other sensory forms, such as music and sculpture.
This article/collection of examples is chiefly concerned with the spoken and written word forms of puns.
In a pun, the 'first' obvious meaning is usually quite reasonable, whereas the 'secondary' alternative meaning may be less sensible, and amusing in some way. The use of a pun may also be ironic. Some puns - notably which feature in greetings cards and novelty postcards - may be mildly rude, sexual, or crude.
Some puns are very clever constructions of language, in terms of the whole statement and context.
Puns are usually a light-hearted gentle form of humour/humor. Puns commonly arise in jokes and spoken entertainment of some kind. Puns are common in scripted comedy plays and broadcast shows.
Puns feature mostly in audible communications, rather than in writing, because the effect is often aided when the spelling is not defined, although many written puns can be extremely effective too.
Puns may or may not involve two different spellings, but a pun by its nature requires that the two different interpretations have a similar sound.
The main technical terms for punning effects and words are:
- paronomasia - the punning effect - (see paronomasia)
- homophone - a punning word spelled differently - (see homophone)
- heteronym - one of several terms for punning words spelled the same - (see heteronyms, heterophones, etc)
Other related terms which involve punning include:
Briefly these definitions, and a few others, are expanded as follows. Longer explanations and many examples of different sorts of puns are in the grammar-language glossary via the links:
- pun - a word (or word-combination) which sounds like another with a different meaning, usually in a contextual statement, joke, or piece of dialogue; usually spoken, but may also be written. pun loosely refers to the pair of similar sounds/words. Pun also refers to the effect of the pun, loosely equating to a joke or quip which exploits the punning words. Pun is also a verb, used mainly when commenting that one word or another 'puns' with another. All of these senses may apply less commonly to double-meanings outside of written or spoken language, for example in visual art, music, and metaphorical imagery of all sorts - (see pun in the grammar glossary)
- dogberryism - accidental amusing substitution of a word or expression with a pun or near-pun - named after a Shakespearian character prone to this tendency, equating to a malapropism (listed below) - (see dogberryism)
- double-entendre - this equates to a pun and derives from old French, meaning 'double understanding' - the expression 'double-entendre' is commonly used to refer to a pun which has rude or sexual implications - see double-entendre)
- double-meaning - a less technical, looser and more general term for a pun, commonly used outside of written and spoken communications - (see double meaning)
- egg corn - a modern term referring to the (usually intentional) substitution of the original sensible word/words in a phrase by similar-sounding word or words to produce a different and (typically) related meaning, usually for comedy or irony. For example the adaptation of 'Alzheimer's disease' to 'old-timer's disease'. The term 'egg corn' is named after linguistics blog referring to a woman who used the words 'egg corn' instead of the word acorn - by their nature 'egg corns' tend to be puns, although often of a very loosely matching variety - (see egg corn)
- heteronyms, heterographs, homographs, etc - various technical terms for words which sound the same, are spelled the same, but have different meanings, for example mean [intend] and mean [unkind] - (see heteronyms, heterophones, etc)
- homophone - a word which sounds like another but has different meaning and spelling, for example flour and flower - (see homophone)
- mondegreen - a modern term for a misheard word or word-combination, especially in song lyrics and poetry - the term was named after a misunderstood passage in an old poem in which the phrase 'laid him on the green' was misunderstood to be 'Lady Mondegreen' - by their nature, mondegreens are almost always puns, and often of quite complex nature, involving obscure phrases, many of which could only have been discovered accidentally - (see mondegreen)
- malapropism - an old term for the (incorrect and supposedly accidental) substitution of a word by a similar-sounding word, usually in speech and funny, often scripted in light-entertainment forms. The term was named (some say first by Lord Byron in 1814) after Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan's 1775 play called The Rivals, whose lines included such accidental puns - (see malapropism)
- oronym - a word or word-combination which can be heard or read to mean something different, by altering where the word-break (juncture) is, for example 'ice cream/I scream' - (see oronym)
- paronomasia - a technical term for the effect of a pun - this is used in a slightly different way to the word pun, for example: a word with a double-meaning is commonly called a pun (as is the punning effect) whereas the word paronomasia is not typically used to refer to a punning word itself, rather to the effect of the punning words. Also the word pun is used as a verb ('to pun'), whereas paronomasia is only used as a noun - (see paronomasia)
brief history of puns and punning
The word pun is first recorded in English in the mid-1600s, and is thought (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) to derive from a now obsolete longer English term 'pundigrion', adapted from the word punctilio, which refers to 'a fine or petty point of conduct or procedure'. Punctilio is from Italian 'punctiglio', and 'punto' meaning point.
The use of puns in literature and scripted spoken words can be traced back many hundreds of years.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) frequently used puns in his plays. One of Shakespeare's most famous puns occurs in the opening lines of Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York..." Here 'sun of York' is a punned with the son of the Duke of York, Edward IV, and incidentally, additionally there is figurative punning of the imagery to Edward IV's 'blazing sun' emblem.
According to 2008 research by the University of Wolverhampton, the oldest English one-liner joke is a pun-based quip, written in 1526 - "When a boy was asked by the Law to say his father's craft, the boy answered that his father was a crafty man of Law.." It was perhaps funnier in the 16th century, but it is evidence of punning half-a-millennium ago.
Many jokes that do not seem to be puns are in fact very definitely based on puns, for example:
A charity worker knocked at my door collecting for the local swimming pool; so I gave him a bucket of water. (Here the two different notions of 'collecting' is the pun.)
And what's pink and wrinkly and hangs out your pants? Your mum. (Here 'hangs out' is the pun.)
A long time earlier, Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (c.254-184BC), 'Plautus', used puns in his Latin plays. These works of Plautus are the oldest surviving in Latin literature; he is not necessarily the inventor of the pun itself.
The following list of puns are more modern.
Most of the puns in this collection are immediately obvious; others in the collection require a little more thought to appreciate the second meaning.
If you'd like to share a clever pun, especially an original one, please send it.
(Most recent first)
Santa Clause - patron saint of grammar.
The poorest ocean species is the porpoise (pawpers).
Irony is an amusingly pressed shirt.
I nearly bought a clock today but it wasn't the right time.
Certain churches welcome donations in dollars and incense.
Badly finished garments are unseemly.
Poorly run fishing companies have a net loss.
Seating at sad stage shows is usually teared.
When cartoonists play sports the games are usually drawn.
Choristers require churches every Sunday.
The dairy industry in the Middle-East depends on milk shakes.
The invention of the wheel created a revolution.
Ballet is best learned using proper steps and stages.
Dyslexic prisoners are not helped by long sentences.
Websites about wild cats usually have lynx.
To fix a broken clarinet get an instruction manual and give it a good reed.
A hot-headed prince needs heir conditioning.
Fields of bare brown earth can be a harrowing site.
A harp which sounds to good to be true is probably a lyre.
Being in debt attracts a lot of interest from bankers.
If you want good feedback ask any road-roller driver - they are natural flatterers.
Religious lions get down on their knees to prey.
Successful corrective surgery on mermaids depends on the detailing.
Steam-ironing is decreasing. And when your clothes get crumpled it's depressing.
Lumberjacks can keep accurate records because they understand logs.
When a ghost is offered a blind date does it say 'Woo who?..'
One sole flatfish. One sole singer.
Poor people don't eat venison because it's dear.
Modern Yorkshire has lost something; police are searching for Leeds.
Trees are relieved when Spring comes.
Double-glazing installation is easier to schedule with a big window.
It's not easy to make a dog from wood bark.
And a big computerized dog needs a megabyte.
Adding an extra floor to a skyscraper is quite another storey.
It's hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they always take things literally.
A broken window is a pain.
The Vatican website shop offers Paypal transactions.
Celibacy can be a very hard thing.
Effective publicity in the bicycle industry depends on having a good spokesman.
For a furniture corporation to succeed it needs a good chairman.
Confusion in electrical businesses is often due to crossed wires.
A currant bun never goes out of date.
A damaged farm building is unstable.
Movie characters with broken legs are often miscast.
Snowboarders who become dependent on drugs go downhill fast.
Meat processing... its future is at steak. And will be until the cows come home.
Cadaver industry regulation - bodies are weak and lack teeth.
You will see a variety of styles and gaits when walking with others in the countryside.
Winemaking after a poor grape harvest can be fruitless.
Airlines process missing luggage complaints on a case-by-case basis.
A good fruit pie is usually made with aplomb.
When tennis equipment is overpriced it's a racket.
Single apples are not pairs.
Plumbers and vegetable-growers blame leaks for bad press reports.
Hot-dogs should be eaten with considerable relish.
A song about a fajita is usually a rap.
100% reliable contraception is inconceivable.
Serious campers are intense.
Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
Sports people can avoid the pain of defeat by wearing comfortable shoes.
Nut screws washers and bolts. (Headline after a launderette sex crime)
Poetry written upside-down is inverse; poetry of very few lines is universal.
A girl who screamed and shouted for a pony got a little hoarse.
The carpenter's heavy tools were uncomfortable so he got a little sore.
Nuns generally wear plain colours because old habits never dye.
The days of the pocket diary are numbered.
Lions eat their prey fresh and roar.
Old bikes should be retired.
Geometry holds clues for the meaning of life; look and you will see the sines.
You can't beat a pickled egg.
If a leopard could cook would he ever change his pots?
See one melée of unruly people and you've seen a maul.
Do hungry time-travellers ever go back four seconds?
(The 'Celibacy can be a very hard thing' quote is based on an unintentional pun ['...Celibacy is an incredibly hard thing...'] made by Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, in a BBC TV Newsnight interview about controversy in Catholic leadership policy, 25 Feb 2013. The 'Fruit flies like a banana' quote is attributed by some to Groucho Marx, although firm evidence has yet to support this [thanks I Phipps]. I can remember this from the 1970s. I suspect it is older, whether Groucho Marx's quote or not. If you know the origin of this one please let me know.)
using puns for learning, teaching and training
This article and the puns quotes within it can be useful in learning and teaching language and communications; for presentations, and in writing and public speaking.
Puns can useful in demonstrating the complex nature of English words, expressions and communications.
Puns and double-meanings illustrate the subtlety of language, and how words and communications can be confusing.
The concept of the pun is also useful as a metaphor for seeing any situation in different ways. This is the notion that people tend to have different views of the same thing, and that we need to appreciate this when designing communications and interpreting people's reactions.
Puns particularly demonstrate a main difficulty in learning a foreign language - that similar words, and especially sounds, may have entirely different meanings.
The shoes story also provides a simple, quick and amusing illustration of how people can see the same thing in different ways.
See also the glass half-full-empty quotes for a broader view of the different ways people see a single subject.
Spelling and grammar notes:
Spellings of certain words can vary in UK-English and US-English, for example colour/color, organise/organize. If you produce any learning materials using these materials please alter spellings accordingly for your own purposes/audience.
However if you see genuine errors here or anywhere else on this website please use the contact page to tell me, thanks.
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