I. What is Wordplay?
Wordplay (or word play, and also called play-on-words) is the clever and witty use of words and meaning. It involves using literary devices and techniques like consonance, assonance, spelling, alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme, acronym, pun, and slang (to name a few) to form amusing and often humorous written and oral expressions. Using wordplay techniques relies on several different aspects of rhetoric, like spelling, phonetics (sound and pronunciation of words), and semantics (meaning of words).
II. Examples of Wordplay
Here are some simple jokes that use wordplay for their humor:
Q: What did the ram say to his wife?
A: I love ewe.
Puns are some of the most frequently used forms of wordplay. Here, when spoken aloud, “I love ewe” sounds like “I love you.” But, the word “ewe” is the term for a female sheep.
Q: What did the mayonnaise say when the girl opened the refrigerator?
A: Close the door, I’m dressing!
This joke relies on two meanings of the word “dressing” for its humor—one for “dressing” as in putting on clothes, and one for mayonnaise being a type of salad “dressing.”
III. Wordplay Techniques
Here we will outline some primary wordplay techniques. However, this represents only a small selection; in truth, the actual list includes hundreds of techniques!
Acronyms are abbreviations of terms formed by using parts or letters of the original words, like saying “froyo” instead of frozen yogurt or “USA” for United States of America. The use of acronyms is increasingly common in our culture today—both formal and informal—and has risen in popularity over the past decade as texting has become commonplace (think of BRB and TTYL!). We use acronyms for all kinds of things, though—for example, the recent news about Great Britain’s exit from the European Union has come to be referred to as “Brexit,” combining parts of the words “Britain” and “Exit.”
Alliteration is a technique expressed by repeating the same first consonant sound in a series of words. You’re probably pretty familiar with this device, as it is a distinguishing feature of many nursery rhymes and tongue twisters. For example, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
c. Assonance and Consonance
Assonance creates a rhyming effect, for example, “the fool called a duel with a mule.” Consonance has a pleasing sound, for example, “the shells she shucks are delicious.”
d. Double Entendre
Double entendre is the double interpretation of a word or phrase, with the secondary meaning usually being funny or risqué. Naturally, double entendres rely on wordplay for their success, because the words used have a literal and a figurative meaning. For example, if you said “The baker has great buns,” it could be understood in two ways!
Idioms are popular, culturally understood phrases that generally have a figurative meaning. The English language alone is said to have more than 25,000 idioms. Common examples are almost endless, but to name a few, “it’s raining cats and dogs,” “butterflies in my stomach,” “catch a cold,” “rise and shine,” and “chill out” are some idioms that you probably hear every day.
Malapropism is incorrect use of a word or phrase when you mean to use another word or phrase that sounds similar. For example, on Modern Family, Gloria says “Don’t give me an old tomato” instead of “Don’t give me an ultimatum”
Onomatopoeia are words that phonetically imitate sounds. Some common examples are boom, achoo, pow, whoosh, bam, tick-tock, click, meow, woof, tweet, and ribbit, just to name a few.
A pun is the ultimate form of wordplay and probably the most popular and widely used. In fact, many would define it as wordplay in general! Puns uses multiple meanings and the similar sounds of words to create a humorous affect. For example, “love at first bite” is a food pun for the idiom “love at first sight,” or, “spilling that glue made a real sticky situation!” uses glue’s main property (stickiness) to make a joke out of the common phrase “sticky situation,” which means a difficult situation.
Using spelling for wordplay is a tricky but fun technique that obviously works best when you can see it in written form. One great example is the web-sensation pig “Chris P. Bacon,” whose name sounds like “Crispy Bacon”!
As you probably know rhyming is the matching and repetition of sounds. It’s an especially popular form of wordplay for poetry, nursery rhymes, and children’s literature because of its catchy and rhythmic style. There are all different rhyme schemes that writers use, from rhyming every word to just rhyming the first or last word of a line. For example, Roses are red/Violets are blue/ Sugar is sweet/ And so are you! follows the scheme ABCB.
Slang is the use of casual and unique language and expressions, and varies depending on age, location, field of work or study, and many other factors. Localized slang and pop culture lingo often rely on wordplay for meaning, and are often filled with idioms (see above).
IV. Importance of Wordplay
Wordplay’s use extends far beyond jokes and humor. It makes language more unique, more interesting, and more witty and amusing than using standard words and phrases. It has had an important role in rhetoric going as far back as the classics of literature and philosophy, from Plato to Shakespeare to Mark Twain. What’s more, it is a huge part of all languages and cultures around the globe, used not only by talented writers, speakers, and storytellers, but by all people of all ages. As soon as kids start telling jokes, they starting using wordplay!
V. Examples of Wordplay in Literature
Everybody knows Dr. Seuss for his completely unique wordplay and rhymes. Often a bit nutty, his stories are one-of-a-kind with creative and often totally strange language. While most authors would choose words to fit their rhyme schemes, Dr. Seuss often just makes up new words altogether. Here’s an example from a book you probably know very well, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish:
At our house we open cans.
We have to open many cans.
And that is why we have a Zans.
A Zans for cans is very good.
Have you a Zans for cans?
Here, Dr. Seuss needed a creature that rhymes with the word “cans,” so he decided to create one called a “Zans.” You can see the author’s wordplay clearly here—he uses not only made-up words, but rhyming as well; the signature Dr. Seuss style!
Shakespeare was a master of language and wordplay, and his puns are particularly well known. Here’s an example from Romeo and Juliet:
Mercutio: “Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.”
Romeo: “Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.”
Here, Romeo uses wordplay to speak about both dancing and his broken heart. First, he refers to Mercurio’s shoes’ “nimble soles,” but says he himself has a “soul of lead”—this means he both has a heavy heart, but also shoe soles of lead would “stake” him to the ground so that he “cannot move,” making it impossible to dance.
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the Weasley twins Fred and George open their own magic joke shop. Some of the advertisements for their products use some pretty funny wordplay, like this:
Why Are You Worrying About You-Know-Who?
You SHOULD Be Worrying About
the Constipation Sensation That’s Gripping the Nation!
In the series, the evil Lord Voldemort is sometimes called You-Know-Who because it’s considered bad luck to speak his real name. Here, Fred and George make a risky joke about Voldemort by referring to him in their ad for a trick candy that causes constipation. They use rhyming lines with assonance, and the pun “You-No-Poo” to make their advertisement comedic and appealing to fellow jokesters.
VI. Examples in Popular Culture
The comic book style TV series iZOMBIE is filled with comedic wordplay about brains and zombie life. In fact, even the protagonist’s name, “Liv Moore,” is a play-on-words (she “lives more” even though she is a zombie). Some of the most notable instances of wordplay come in the chapter titles, which each feature a pun based on a combo of popular culture references and brains. Here are some examples from the episode “Even Cowgirls Get the Black and Blues,” which is a pun, too!
Pawn of the Dead
This chapter titles makes a pun out of the well-known horror flick “Dawn of the Dead” as Liv and her partner enter a pawn shop.
Weapons of Glass Destruction
This chapter title makes a pun out of “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
This chapter title, picturing Liv’s cop partner and member of the Seattle Police Department (Seattle PD) makes the pun “Seattle PDA.”
In Winnie the Pooh, Pooh often confuses the sounds of words with their real meaning. In this clip, Owl is using the word “issue,” and Pooh soon thinks he has a cold…
Here, Pooh mistakes Owl’s use of the word “issue” as the sound “achoo,” which as you know is associated with sneezing. As Owl tries to explain, Pooh continues to tell him that he might need to go lay down. This cute and clever wordplay is a signature feature of Pooh’s thinking.
The comedy series Modern Family is renowned for its use of all kinds of clever and hilarious wordplay. In particular, the character Gloria is known for her mispronunciations and malapropisms when speaking English, which is her second language. In this clip, her husband Jay points out some of the silly mistakes that she makes when speaking:
Here, we learn some of Gloria’s errors: “Doggy dog world” instead of “Dog-eat-dog world,” “blessings in the skies” instead of “blessings in disguise,” and so on. The clip ends with her final mistake—she accidentally ordered Jay a box of baby Jesus’ instead of a box of baby cheeses!
VII. Related Terms
Figure of Speech
A figure of speech is a word or phrase that has a figurative (not literal) meaning. Many types of wordplay will use figures of speech, and vice versa. Some types of figures of speech include metaphors, similes, irony, oxymorons, and so on.
In all, wordplay is a wonderful rhetorical device that can serve all kinds of purposes across all kinds of genres and styles. It can be used by writers and everyday people alike to create interesting and memorable language that often quickly gains popularity and becomes widely understood. Wordplay never goes out of style and never stops changing and growing, and therefore, it’s an essential and important part of the English language for writers and speakers of all ages.