“Puns are the highest form of literature” – Alfred Hitchcock

Agreeing with Hitch, but with a caveat, is columnist Doug Larsen. He observed that “A pun is the lowest form of humor, unless you thought of it yourself.”

“Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are those who are least able to utter them,” agreed Edgar Allan Poe. He also explained that “The goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability,” which is why, sometimes, we even apologize for making a pun by saying “No pun intended.”

Alexander Pope, on the other hand, quite admired puns in their own right. He said that they speak “twice as much by being split.”

Right up there (down there?) with the dad joke is the often groan-inducing pun, which is simply a play on words that derives its humor by using words that are similar in spelling, sound or meaning.

Puns are also known as paragrams or paronomasia, which is from the Greek “paronomazein,” and means “to make a change in a name.” They’re also known as “witzelsucht,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “excessive facetiousness and inappropriate or pointless humor.”


First up, we’ll look at homographic puns, also called “heteronomic” or “same name” puns. They make use of words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, and are best understood when read. An example is from Groucho Marx, who pointed out that “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

Remember, you can trust a glue salesman because he always sticks to his word, but if you fail to pay your exorcist, you could be repossessed. I once tried to explain those puns to a kleptomaniac, but I couldn’t because he always took things literally.

Next up are homophonic puns, which make use of words that sound alike (or very similar), but have different meanings or spellings. Examples include Mark Twain’s statement that “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt,” or George Carlin’s observation that “Atheism is a non-prophet institution.”

I once asked my French friend Jacques if he kept playing his video game during a recent earthquake. He replied, “Wii, that temblor was just a topographical error.”

And since we’re speaking French (sort of), let’s take a look at macaronic puns. “Macaronic” comes from the Latin word “macaronicus,” which means “medley” or “jumble,” because macaronic puns make use of words (real or contrived) from more than one language.

For instance, if you eat lunch at your workstation, you’re dining “al desco,” but if you’re eating Egyptian street food you might “feelawful” afterward. An elegant frankfurter is a “haute dog,” but puns about German sausage are “the wurst.” And Paris may be a sight for soirees, but there, one egg for breakfast is “an oeuf.”


Then there’s the compound pun, which is made by using two punny words or blending two words together, and can be homographic, homophonic or both. At this point, I’d like to give you a little piece of advice: never scam in the jungle, cheetahs are always spotted.

And finally, there’s the recursive pun, which requires an understanding of the first part in order for the second part to make sense. You’d have to be familiar with the Star Wars reference if, in early May, I said to you, “May the fourth be with you,” or be a fan of a popular video game if I mentioned that today is “Mario Day” on March 10 (MAR10).

I’m a little nervous right now because I just read Fred Alen’s opinion that “Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted.” I think I really need to be more careful about talking to myself using figurative language, or I’ll sound like the village idiom.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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