Words at Play

Ah, puns. Love ’em or hate ’em, puns are a part of life. Especially, it seems, in the English-speaking world. I don’t speak any foreign language well enough to know whether puns are used elsewhere, but certainly there is a perception that it’s a curiously English-language phenomenon to play on words.

Personally, I like them. As long as they are not groan-worthy, puns appeal to me. But when I like them, most, is when they are not merely jokes, but a sort of secret code between reader and writer.

Dickens, for example, was very good at making his characters’ names give an extra flavour of the person – Mr Gradgrind, Mr Bumble, Mr Scrooge … Even without having read the books or heard the stories, you would have a sense of those men, wouldn’t you?

Titles, too, can have multiple meanings – are Elizabeth and Darcy meant to represent Pride and Prejudice respectively (and if so, which is which?) or are both little bit of each? Are Sense and Sensibility opposites or two elements of the same personality, and if they are opposites, which is Austen espousing?

In English Literature lessons, I remember being asked to read a great deal into every word and phrase chosen by the author: “ooh, she used lots of sibilants in that sentence to make us feel the wicked nature of the speaker,” or whatever. And often, I suspect the writer did no such thing. She probably didn’t even notice the large supply of s’s and if she did, she probably wondered if it made the work hard to read and she should edit some of them out.

But on the other hand, writers are wordsmiths. We like words and language and we love the meanings of those words. All of them. So sometimes, I think perhaps the author did smile to herself when she used a clever piece of wording – a sentence that appeared to mean one thing but later turned out to mean the opposite, or a description like “devilishly handsome” for a character who turns out to be merely devilish.

I certainly do. Sometimes, I do it by mistake and then catch it in the edit. Sometimes I don’t catch it at all and only get that snatch of pride when someone else points it out. (Sometimes, it backfires horribly and no one gets it, in which case I know I’ve failed on that occasion.) By way of example:

Perms and Combs is a mathematical term for Permutations and Combinations (for example, given 10 digits and 3 spaces, you can make 1000 numeric combinations, whereas 10 digits and 2 spaces gives you only 100 options). But it could also be about hairdressing. And indeed, the hair of the members of Guns n Roses.

Diana and Nadia both have the same letters in their names – apt if they are facing a similar problem from different vantage points. But so does Aidan; (hopefully) with the subtle intimation that he may be as much a victim as the two women.

How do you feel about puns? Do you like to play with words and hide meanings in your writing? As a reader, do you enjoy hunting out the hidden meanings in what you read?


Filed under Writing

10 responses to “Words at Play

  1. For puns I begin with Shakespeare.

  2. Jen, I recommend you read (if you haven’t already), “Anguished English” by Richard Lederer or “Get Thee to a Punnery”, also by RL. He has other books, too, but “Anguished English” is one of my all-time favorite word play books. I have more than once had tears streaming down my cheeks (the ones on my face, you understand) from the accumulation of laughter.

    As for puns, I enjoy them and evidently we use them, or other word play, more than I realize as our older daughter’s boyfriend remarked on how much we pun, while he was visiting us over vacation. There are certainly worse things that could be said about one.

    I do like to puzzle out meanings as you mentioned, although I must confess to having missed the subtleties of “Perms and Combs.” Usually I Google when I think/know there’s more to something than what I get, but I’m sure I was allowing myself to be too rushed. 😦 Now I know.


    • Thanks, Janet, I’ll be sure to check out those books. And don’t worry about occasionally missing subtleties, I’m sure we all do – even in our own writing!

      • Sometimes we’re so subtle that we don’t even know what we meant when we said it…at least as interpreted by readers. 🙂 Hope your day’s off to a great start. No FF for me this week as I leave for a 13-hour drive to Philly very early tomorrow morning to visit Daughter #2 and won’t be heading back until Tuesday. If I can’t read others’ stories, I don’t like asking them to read mine.

  3. Dear Jennifer,

    I’ve been called Atilla the Pun or Pundora by turns. I’ve always enjoyed playing with words.

    I did get Nadia and Diana in your story, yet managed to miss Aidan.

    One of my favorites of all times came from my brother who is the true Pun Master. He referred to his dog as “A meat seeking guided muscle.”

    Yep, it’s a groaner…but a goodie.



  4. For website bios, I use the strapline “Pun usually intended”. Should you need explanation, ask any of the three fortunate souls who worked with me in a small theatre management office for a whole year… 😉

    I’m annoyed I didn’t get the Diana/Nadia/Aidan one now; I do often spot things like that. I’d never have got Perms & Combs though! Both very clever.

    You shouldn’t beat yourself up if it seems like nobody ‘got’ the pun initially. If the piece works without the pun, I don’t think that’s a failure at all! Are you not writing for yourself, as well as for others? Perhaps they missed it because the story was so good in other ways: strong pathos can be distracting, in a good way.

    Plus, you’ll reward careful re-reading (the next day, or years later) with a fresh kick of literary pleasure; /that/ is writing that stands the test of time. Discovering old things is usually more enjoyable than discovering recent things, whether it’s a word play or a small green frog pencil case in some cable trunking…

    • Thanks Stuart! I don’t beat myself up when people miss extra layers, only when their lack of understanding of some wordplay means they don’t get the story at all.
      And I can’t think what you mean about small frog pencil cases in trunking 😉

  5. I’m quite literal (as you can see from my FF stories) so I suspect I almost always miss puns. About the best I get was calling my last post “Eye Aye” (it was about eyes and “aye” means “yes” and there’s the expression “aye aye” – you get the rather obvious idea!).

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