Tag Archives: Plays on Words

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?

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