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Word play

Artist Tavar Zawacki painted a site-specific wordplay painting in Lima, Peru, commenting on the cocaine crisis and exportation.

Word play or wordplay[1] (also: play-on-words) is a literary technique and a form of wit in which words used become the main subject of the work, primarily for the purpose of intended effect or amusement. Examples of word play include puns, phonetic mix-ups such as spoonerisms, obscure words and meanings, clever rhetorical excursions, oddly formed sentences, double entendres, and telling character names (such as in the play The Importance of Being Earnest, Ernest being a given name that sounds exactly like the adjective earnest).

Word play is quite common in oral cultures as a method of reinforcing meaning. Examples of text-based (orthographic) word play are found in languages with or without alphabet-based scripts, such as homophonic puns in Mandarin Chinese.


This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (January 2010)

Some techniques often used in word play include interpreting idioms literally and creating contradictions and redundancies, as in Tom Swifties:

"Hurry up and get to the back of the ship," Tom said sternly.

Linguistic fossils and set phrases are often manipulated for word play, as in Wellerisms:

"We'll have to rehearse that," said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car.

Another use of fossils is in using antonyms of unpaired words – "I was well-coiffed and sheveled," (back-formation from "disheveled").

Additional techniques include:

Spoonerisms – an accidental transposition of initial letters or sounds, often with humorous results.


           ‘a flock of bats’ instead of ‘a block of flats’

           ‘a bunny phone’ instead of ‘a funny bone’

Malapropisms – replacing a word with a different word that sounds similar.  This can be unintentional or done for comedic effect.


             ‘I’ve never seen a flamingo dancer!’ (flamingo – flamenco)

             ‘What do I look like, an inferior decorator?’ (inferior – interior)[2]

             ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness.’ (pineapple – pinnacle)[3]

Anthimeria – altering a word's regular part of speech. This can occur naturally with the evolution of a language, but can also be done for emphasis or comedic effect.


‘Did you Google the answer?’  ‘Google’ is a noun but it has become acceptable to use it as a verb through common usage.

            ‘The thunder would not peace at my bidding.’ Peace, a noun, is used here as a verb.[4]

‘The little old lady turtled across the street.’ Turtle, a noun, is used as a verb to comedically describe a slow walker.

Double entendre – Words or phrases with multiple meanings are used ambiguously with a humorous or sexual (or both) result.


             May West said, ‘Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.’[5]

Groucho Marx said, ‘If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?’[6]

Portmanteau – Combining two words to create a new word.


              Smoke + Fog becomes Smog

              Motor + Hotel becomes Motel

             Camera + Recorder becomes Camcorder


Many businesses use word play to their advantage by making their business names more memorable. This business is located near the United Nations Headquarters and plays on the term UN Peacekeepers.
This business's sign is written in both English and Hebrew. The large character is used to make the ’N’ in Emanuel and the ‘מ’ in עמנואל. This is an example of orthographic word play.

Most writers engage in word play to some extent, but certain writers are particularly committed to, or adept at, word play as a major feature of their work . Shakespeare's "quibbles" have made him a noted punster. Similarly, P.G. Wodehouse was hailed by The Times as a "comic genius recognized in his lifetime as a classic and an old master of farce" for his own acclaimed wordplay.[citation needed] James Joyce, author of Ulysses, is another noted word-player. For example, in his Finnegans Wake Joyce's phrase "they were yung and easily freudened" clearly implies the more conventional "they were young and easily frightened"; however, the former also makes an apt pun on the names of two famous psychoanalysts, Jung and Freud.

An epitaph, probably unassigned to any grave, demonstrates use in rhyme.

Here lie the bones of one 'Bun'
He was killed with a gun.
His name was not 'Bun' but 'Wood'
But 'Wood' would not rhyme with gun
But 'Bun' would.

Crossword puzzles often employ wordplay to challenge solvers. Cryptic crosswords especially are based on elaborate systems of wordplay.

An example of modern word play can be found on line 103 of Childish Gambino's "III. Life: The Biggest Troll".

H2O plus my D, that's my hood, I'm living in it

Rapper Milo uses a play on words in his verse on "True Nen"[7]

Keep any heat by the fine China dinner set
Your man's caught the chill and it ain't even winter yet

A farmer says, "I got soaked for nothing, stood out there in the rain bang in the middle of my land, a complete waste of time. I'll like to kill the swine who said you can win the Nobel Prize for being out standing in your field!".

Eminem is known for the extensive wordplay in the lyrics of his music.

The Mario Party series is known for its mini-game titles that usually are puns and various plays on words; for example: "Shock, Drop, and Roll", "Gimme a Brake", and "Right Oar Left". These mini-game titles are also different depending on regional differences and take into account that specific region's culture.

Related phenomena

Word play can enter common usage as neologisms.

Word play is closely related to word games; that is, games in which the point is manipulating words. See also language game for a linguist's variation.

Word play can cause problems for translators: e.g., in the book Winnie-the-Pooh a character mistakes the word "issue" for the noise of a sneeze, a resemblance which disappears when the word "issue" is translated into another language.

See also


  1. ^ "definition of wordplay". Oxford Dictionaries Online. Archived from the original on 11 August 2011. Retrieved 6 August 2013.
  2. ^ "The Little Atheist". All in the Family. Created by Norman Lear, season 6, episode 11, Norman Lear Productions, 1975.
  3. ^ Sheriden, Richard (1998). The Rivals. Dover.
  4. ^ Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Dover, 1994.
  5. ^ Byrne, Robert. The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said. Touchstone, 2003.
  6. ^ You Bet Your Life. Created by John Guedel. John Guedel Productions, 1950.
  7. ^ Scallops hotel – True Nen, retrieved 3 December 2021
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Word play
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