Come again?

On the workings of puns, with examples from “Nature Magazine” headlines.

Neither humble pun, nor humble pie.


The humble pun.

What interests you more: its aesthetics or its taxonomy?

The internet seems to think that the issue of aesthetics cannot be settled: if you like puns, you like them; if you don’t, you don’t. But nothing is ever so clear-cut, and especially when it comes to newspaper headings where wordplay is almost an obligatory linguistic foreplay.

Out of context and as a congeries, the titular wordplay assumes melodramatic proportions. I have in mind a mordant self-critique taken from The Economist’s blog (Oct 28th 2010by G.L. | New York). Try not to cringe as you go down the list.

I note with chagrin that The Economist‘s series of awful puns in stories about the Chinese currency has reached epic proportions:
A yuan-sided argument
Yuan small step
Yuan up, yuan down
Tell me what you yuan, what you really, really yuan
It’s yuan or the other
Yuan step from the edge
Yuan-way bet
Yuan for the money

Yuan. A word made in punner’s heaven?


Perhaps you didn’t cringe, perhaps you enjoyed that. Either way, I won’t discuss taste—I’ll focus on the taxonomy. However, I will not do so with any degree of precision that a true linguist might appreciate. My method is a mental shortcut through the jungle of word-jokes.

Given any two English words A and B, you can compare three of their properties:

  • their pronunciation,
  • their spelling,
  • and their meaning.

If they are equal across all three properties, they are the same word. If they are distinct across all three properties, they are unrelated (for our purposes). This leaves six other options, of which the first three below do not contribute meaningfully to punning, although they are interesting in their own right. I include them for completeness.

Skip if you only care about punning

  • A and B have (more or less) the same meaning but different pronunciation and spelling—these are synonyms. e.g. sofa and couch.
  • A and B have the same meaning and spelling, but different pronunciation—these are words like the, which depends on where in the sentence it is, and idyllic, which has two legitimate British pronunciations /ɪˈdɪlɪk/ and /ʌɪˈdɪlɪk/ according to the OED. (Of course there are dialects and the like.)
  • A and B have the same meaning and pronunciation, but different spelling—these would be spelling variations due to modernisation like aether and ether, or differences like British versus American spelling such as colour and color, or words with an equal status in the OED like eyrie and aerie (or, eerie  and eery).

Now to the three pun-worthy pairs. Their common feature: A and B have a different meaning. I’ll put their names first, as you’re likely to recognise them.

  • Homonyms e.g. start (as in begin) and start (as in surprise): A and B have the same spelling and same pronunciation.
  • Homographs e.g. desert (as in sandy place) and desert (as in to leave): A and B have the same spelling, but a different pronunciation.
  • Homophones e.g. two and to, or liquorish and lickerish (and liquorice): A and B (and C) have the same pronunciation, but a different spelling.
Neither liquorish and lickerish


Like last week, I’ll provide some examples from Nature Magazine. The article titles are in italics. (As I won’t analyse the articles themselves, I’m not including the links, but most are easily retrievable by a simple google search.)

  • How strawberries come to fruition: play on fruition meaning both to ripen and to yield fruit (homonyms).
  • Stomach growth in a dish: play on dish meaning both something you eat and a shortening of Petri dish (homonyms).
  • Unravelling a knotty problem: play on knotting meaning both thorny and full of knots (homonyms). Subject: science of how shoelaces untie. Tidbit: a shoelace takes around 7g each time you move.
  • Patience for patients: play on same pronunciation (homophones).

All of these are examples of the figure of speech antanaclasis, a type of homonymic pun.

But this doesn’t explain any Yuan1 of the Economist‘s examples above. That is because antanaclasis is too rigid. What we need is the figure called paronomasia, which allows for similar words to be substituted: those with similar spelling and similar pronunciation. And this is where we find the “cheese” in cheesy titles.

  • A loop of faith (DNA coiling),
  • AI love you (Robots),
  • Birds of play (parrots),
  • Clause for concern (funding research),
  • Lesions learnt (detection of skin cancer),
  • Sort and destroy (cell biology),
  • The codes that got away (cryptography).

Lastly, there’s the good old polyptoton. That’s when you repeat the same word or similar words.

A solid more fluid then a fluid and Manipulation of the manipulators: playing on a word used as a verb then as a noun.

I believe you are now well-equipped to analyse most headline puns that come your way. You may, however, decide that the business of paronomasia, like the business of calories on your favourite chocolate cake, should not be looked into too closely: some things are best enjoyed unawares.

  1. Every article on puns has to have at least one pun which will make you groan. Not optional. 

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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