I. What is a Pun?
A pun is a joke based on the interplay of homophones — words with the same pronunciation but different meanings. It can also play with words that sound similar, but not exactly the same. The joke’s humor (if any) comes from the confusion of the two meanings.
II. Examples of Puns
The tallest building in town is the library — it has thousands of stories!
A pun on the difference between stories in books and stories (floors) in a building.
I can’t remember which state my wife wanted to visit for our next vacation — it’s OK, Alaska.
Read the joke out loud: “Alaska” sounds like “I’ll ask her.”
Why do amphibians take the bus? Because their cars are always getting toad.
“Toad” vs. “towed”
I dropped an electron somewhere! -Are you sure! -Yes, I’m positive!
A slightly brainier sort of pun. Losing an electron (a negatively charged particle) would turn a neutral atom into a positively charged one. The pun works on the difference between a positive charge and being “positive,” or certain.
III. The Importance of Puns
The point of a pun is to make the reader laugh. It tends to be a pretty heavy-handed form of comedy (not at all subtle or dry), so puns create a “jokey” tone for your writing. This is great for some kinds of writing, especially if you’re writing a creative piece and you want one of the characters to come in as silly comic relief. However, it’s not the right tone for formal essays.
Why are puns funny? Why do we laugh when we hear words used in odd or unfamiliar ways? Nobody knows for sure, but the problem has been studied by scientists: in 2011, a group of neuroscientists published a study on why people laugh (or groan) at puns. Although the precise source of the comedy is still unknown, the scientists discovered that puns activate a different part of the brain from other jokes — specifically, puns activate a “puzzle-solving” brain region before they activate the regions associated with general humor.
One popular theory of comedy is that it is a response to the alleviation of micro-discomfort — that is, something makes us just a tiny bit uncomfortable, and when that discomfort passes we laugh out of relief. So, it might be that a pun causes just a tiny amount of confusion, forcing the brain to activate its puzzle-solving mechanisms. This confusion, though very easily resolved, still causes a brief moment of micro-discomfort. As soon as the brain works out the puzzle, the discomfort is relieved and we laugh.
Of course, many puns are not as funny as the joker expects, and so people groan with annoyance rather than laughing. This may be a result of the joke being too “obvious,” and thus failing to create the micro-discomfort that leads to laughter.
IV. Examples of Puns in Literature
Shakespeare was a huge fan of the pun. Even his tragic plays, like Romeo and Juliet, are packed with wordplay and puns, some of them very raunchy even by modern standards. Shakespeare loved to use similar-sounding words to make dirty puns – to find them, keep an eye out for his use of words like “clock,” “shift,” and “country.”
Oscar Wilde was also famous for his love of puns. One of his most famous plays is called The Importance of Being Earnest, and much of the comedy surrounds several characters all pretending to be someone named Ernest. Of course, in pretending to be Ernest they are not being earnest.
V. Examples of Puns in Pop Culture
Comic strips use puns all the time as the source of their comedy. For example, an early Calvin & Hobbes comic begins with Calvin asking Hobbes if he wants to see an antelope. But instead of an actual antelope, Calvin is talking about an eloping ant (“do you want to see an ant elope?”). “See?” says Calvin, “She’s climbing down the ladder to her boyfriend’s car.
Episodes of CSI: Miami frequently open with Detective Caruso making a pun about the case at hand. For example, in one episode the murder victim is an ex-Marine who has died from electrocution. Caruso quips, “I guess he’s been…discharged.”
In action movies, there’s a popular trope that screenwriters call the “post-kill pun.” Made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s and 90s, this is a pun that the hero says right after killing one of his enemies. For example, in The Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger’s character assassinates an enemy by blowing him up in an ice cream truck. Schwarzenegger quips, “I just iced him…to cone a phrase.” The trope was so widely used in this era that it’s become a cliché, and many movies parody classic action films by having the hero deliver a terrible pun at climactic moments in the action.
VI. Related Terms
“Wordplay” is largely synonymous with “pun.” However, it can also refer to a double entendre when the purpose of the double entendre is to be humorous or playful. Wordplay can also cover word games such as “GHOST” and other games popular with children on long car trips.
“Double Entendre” means “double intention” or “double meaning,” and it refers to any use of a word’s multiple meanings. This can be done for the sake of comedy, sexual innuendo, deliberate misunderstanding, or any other purpose.
For example, a famous short story by Damon Knight begins with a group of aliens coming to Earth with a book called “To Serve Man.” Everyone is excited that the aliens want to serve them, thinking this means to perform services. But actually, the book turns out to be a cook book – the aliens’ plan is to serve man for dinner!
Although there is some overlap between “double entendre” and “pun,” they usually refer to a different kind of wordplay: a pun usually draws on homophones and similar-sounding words; a double entendre usually draws on a single word with many possible meanings. In addition, a pun is always a joke, whereas a double entendre can be used for many purposes besides comedy.