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The pun-damentals of wordplay

John Murray

Since we appreciate the flexibility of the English language and the fact that so many of its words have more than one meaning, most wordsmiths tend to be  keen admirers of the pun.

A form of wordplay creating double meaning by using similar sounds or dual definitions of words, puns tend to illicit groans from unappreciative audiences. Punsters, however, should always hasten to remind their fed-up friends, colleagues and family members that making puns is a sign of wit, intelligence and a broad vocabulary. From William Shakespeare, to Oscar Wilde, to the Two Ronnies, to modern day exponent of the one-liner Tim Vine, puns have kept us chuckling for centuries.

Puns are not just used to create mirth though; they are often used to break news. Tabloid newspapers, in particular, are known for this, with one of the most famous and creative ever being coined by the Scottish Sun. The paper drew inspiration from Mary Poppins after Celtic’s surprising 2000 Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, writing:

“Super Caley Go Ballistic – Celtic are Atrocious”

It’s hard to explain why headline writers love puns, but our best guess is that the key to writing a good headline is to catch the eye and make us want to read the article by not giving away the full story. Puns stand out on a page because they look odd, and often don’t make sense without context. We therefore need to read the full story to understand them and appreciate the joke.

Personally, I prefer to pun for my own benefit, and take quiet satisfaction in the grumbles of tedium they often draw out from listeners. My advice is that, if you want to really drive people bonkers with puns, steer the conversation towards fish. The possibilities are endless:

“These jokes are out of plaice.”
“You’ll have to repeat that, I’m a little hard of herring.”
“For cod’s hake, stop making puns!”
“You’re giving me a terrible haddock.”

Dairy also lends itself well to punning, and exchanges could go as follows:

“Stop milking it!”
“Pull the udder one!”
“That’s one for your dairy.”
“These puns can easily go pasteurize without you noticing them.”

So, be proud to pun, and view your groans as a compliment, not a pun-ishment.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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