The pun, also called paronomasia, is a form of word play which suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. Puns are used to create humor and sometimes require a large vocabulary to understand.
The history of punning serves as a reminder to be less dogmatic about the rules of diction than propriety might suggest. Language is a common heritage and a democratic pursuit; anyone may play a role in its evolution. While linguists focus on unconscious changes shaping a language, conscious fooling about has played a role, too. (The joke misspelling of "all correct" as "oll korrekt" gave us a ubiquitous bit of English: "OK".)
There are homophonic puns (sound-alikes: “When a clock is hungry it goes back four seconds”), homographic puns (etymologically distinct words spelled the same — “I’m a sap for tree jokes”), paradigmatic puns (which depend on outside context, such as the multiple plays on “crossing state lines for immoral purposes”), and syntagmatic puns (where two related words are both found in the same pun, such as “You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass”).
The rise of scientific thought also undermined the primacy of the Bible, whose original Hebrew texts were rich with puns... "The pun was just one high-profile victim of these shifts in beliefs," writes Simon Alderson, a scholar who has studied puns and punsters of the period. As attitudes toward language evolved, so did attitudes toward the language of humor, including puns.
You might have relegated puns to the same mental category as pies in the face and kazoo music — occasionally amusing but decidedly lowbrow — or resigned yourself to groaning at them in headlines (“The Audacity of Taupe,” from a New York Times story about the redecoration of the Oval Office) or in country music (“Looking Out My Window Through the Pain”). But it was not always thus.
For nearly two decades, Liberman has been researching a new etymological dictionary that focuses on English words of unknown origin, 'pun' among them. He documents evidence of pun's debut in English sometime about 1640 - nearly three decades earlier than the OED's first citations... As his best educated guess at the root of 'pun', Liberman suggests the Latin 'punctilio', or "fine point." Regretfully, though, he concludes that "the etymology of the pun will remain unsolved."
Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.
[James Joyce] was a master of rhetoric, as he was a master of mimicry, but his preferred figure of speech was one of the lowest, the pun. “After all, the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church was built on a pun,” he said to a friend, Frank Budgen. “It ought to be good enough for me.” (Joyce meant the verses in Matthew, where Jesus tells Simon Peter, “Thou art Peter”—an Anglicization of the Greek Petros—“and upon this rock”—petra—“I will build my church.”) A pun is a verbal coincidence: a word that just happens to sound like another word.
Puns are of their nature surreal – they link things that might otherwise never be put side by side; they offend our sense of decorum, our sense that the universe is to be understood by neat pyramids of taxonomy. They are also, in another sense, democratic – not everyone has the training in elaborate verbal balance to write a sonnet or deliver a crushing epigram – but almost anyone might commit a pun.
The scribes who invented the alphabet did so by deliberate, increasingly complex punning. Essentially, they recognized that they could break apart sound, symbol and meaning to harvest phonetic components of deconstructed hieroglyphs, much as kids who tell knock-knock jokes break apart the component syllables of names and put those back to work in new, surprising ways.
One area of language that remains especially divisive is the practice of punning, and in this regard people generally fall into one of two opposing camps: they either appreciate puns as a sign of intelligence and wit, or dismiss all puns contemptuously - good and bad alike - as juvenile, foolish, or the lowest form of humor. What such critics fail to recognize, however, is that puns and punsters were actually instrumental to the very rise of modern civilization.