Word play or wordplay (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.
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- "Hurry up and get to the back of the ship," Tom said sternly.
- "We'll have to rehearse that," said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car.
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)
‘He is the very pineapple of politeness.’ (pineapple – pinnacle)
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.
‘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.’
Groucho Marx said, ‘If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?’
Portmanteau – Combining two words to create a new word.
Smoke + Fog becomes Smog
Motor + Hotel becomes Motel
Camera + Recorder becomes Camcorder
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. 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.
- 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.
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
- 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.
Word play can enter common usage as neologisms.
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.
- False etymology
- Figure of speech
- List of forms of word play
- List of taxa named by anagrams
- Phono-semantic matching
- "wordplay: definition of wordplay in Oxford dictionary (British & World English)". Askoxford.com. 31 July 2013. Retrieved 6 August 2013.[dead link]
- “The Little Atheist.” All in the Family. Created by Norman Lear, season 6, episode 11, Norman Lear Productions, 1975.
- Sheriden, Richard (1998). The Rivals. Dover.
- Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Dover, 1994.
- Byrne, Robert. The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said. Touchstone, 2003.
- You Bet Your Life. Created by John Guedel. John Guedel Productions, 1950.
- Scallops hotel – True Nen, retrieved 3 December 2021