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Puns, witty plays on words, pop up everywhere in English and are an essential part of British humour. Writer Catherine Rooney lets us in on these jokes.
Text by: Catherine Rooney
Country: Great Britain

hat did the cheese say when it looked in the mirror? Halloumi.

Where do you find chili beans? The North Pole.

What do you call a man with no shin? Toe-Knee.

Are you rolling around the floor laughing? Have you just spat out your tea? These three examples of jokes in English are made using something many people take very seriously: puns

People always say you really know a language when you can make jokes in it. Whether you find these puns funny or not, introduce them into your language and you are sure to get at least some people laughing.

A pun is a word game that takes advantage of the fact that many words have more than one meaning. In English, these double-meaning words are called homonyms. Homonyms are words that sound the same but have various meanings. For example ‘bark’, which describes the outside of a tree, and ‘bark’, the sound a dog makes.

When homonyms sound the same but are spelt differently, they are called homophones, like ‘one’ and ‘won’, or ‘write’ and ‘right’. People are happy to receive flowers on their birthday, but are not so impressed if you send them flour. Many languages have homonyms, and many languages have word games, but not all languages have puns.

Once you have the basic idea, it’s easy to start playing around with all of the homonyms that you know. Let’s go back to the examples above. In the first joke, ‘halloumi’, a type of cheese, sounds very similar to ‘hello me’. What did the cheese say when it looked in the mirror? Halloumi.

‘Chili’ describes a spicy pepper, but ‘chilly’, a word that sounds the same but is spelt differently, describes something cold. Where do you find chili beans? The North Pole.

Toe-Knee sounds like the very common English name, Tony. What do you call a man with no shin? Toe-Knee. All of these jokes are funny because the punch lines have two meanings.

The history of puns

Puns have a long history. There is evidence of puns dating back to the ancient Egyptians, who included them in hieroglyphics to leave hidden messages about their dead. Moving forward through history, academics have argued that there are puns included in the Bible, though many do not translate into English. Even the beloved William Shakespeare was fond of a pun. In ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Mercutio jokes, “tomorrow, you will find me a grave man […]” His literal meaning is that he will be gravely sad, but Shakespeare also hints at his upcoming death, where he is sent to his grave.

Shakespeare can also be credited for introducing perhaps the most common type of pun into the English language, the ‘knock, knock’ joke. ‘Knock, knock’ jokes use puns to play with popular names that sound like English words, and there are thousands of them. For example:

Knock, Knock
Who’s there?
Mary.
Mary Who?
Merry Christmas.

Or

Knock, Knock
Who’s there?
Harry.
Harry who?
Hurry up, it’s cold out here!

The first ever ‘knock, knock’ joke appeared in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth‘. He was the original master of puns.

Puns, Marketing and Special Occasions

Now that you know what puns are, and have a little idea of their history, you will start to recognize them when reading or listening to English. They are everywhere, perhaps most notably in advertising.

Marketing agencies want to make products stand out and be remembered. What better way to do that than to get potential customers giggling at a pun in your commercial? Some famous examples include the Kit Kat taglinehave a break‘. Kit Kat maker Nestle wants you to stop what you’re doing and relax. They also want you to ‘break off’ a bar of their chocolate wafer and really enjoy yourself.

Other examples include the UK loan company ‘Wonga.com’ with their campaign ‘you’re broke, we’ll fix it’, and ‘Nokia – connecting people’, a very witty slogan for a company that ‘connects’ people with good telephone ‘connections’.

Examples of puns don’t stop with advertising; they are also incredibly popular on greeting cards. In English speaking countries, greeting cards are sent to celebrate every occasion: birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings, as well as to say thank you, to say sorry, and to say congratulations. You can even buy cards for your pet! Usually when you send a card you are trying to make someone smile, and because of their usual light-hearted and positive sentiment, greetings cards are a perfect place for puns.

A common way to create simple funny birthday cards is by using a visual pun. A picture of a bumble bee accompanied by the text ‘Ha-bee birthday’, a picture of a pea and ‘A pea Birthday’, lettuce and the text ‘lettuce (let us) party’. It’s great to receive a card with a pun on the front, and a huge part of the greeting card industry is dedicated to making them. If you’d like to check out some examples yourself, google ‘greeting card puns’ or take a look at brands like Kenzie and Characterwise, which specialise in puns on greeting cards.

Another more morbid place where you often encounter puns is on graves, in obituaries and even during funerals. This type of black humour is definitely not to everybody’s taste, but I suppose people are entitled to freedom of expression even from beyond the grave.

In 2009 a YouTube video of a Marine who requested that the song by Queen, ‘Another One Bites The Dust‘ be played during his funeral went viral. The mourners attending seemed to enjoy this example of a rather dark pun.

There is another story of a mother from the United States, who was famous for making delicious cookies that everybody loved. She was repeatedly asked for the recipe and whenever she was, she would respond, ‘over my dead body‘. When she passed away, her family were surprised to find that one of her wishes was to have the cookie recipe printed on her gravestone. She was literally only going to give her cookie recipe away ‘over her dead body’. They followed her wishes, and the mother managed to create a long-standing visual pun that will surely give her family and friends something to smile about for many years.

Even though puns are meant to be fun, not everyone finds them amusing. While some people find them hilariously witty and entertaining, others think they are immature and un-intellectual ways to get a cheap laugh. They are loved or loathed, adored or abhorred.

Famous movie director Alfred Hitchcock was quoted saying, ‘Puns are the highest form of literature’. Neurologist Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, described them as the lowest form of wit, formed with ‘the least amount of effort‘. Well-loved comedian John Oliver recently reiterated this, describing puns as “…not only the lowest form of wit, but the lowest form of human behaviour”.

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, it is impossible to escape the fact that puns are an integral part of the culture of the English language.

Expressions

From beyond the grave – an expression to describe an action or message that people are figuratively able to communicate after death.

Over my dead body – an expression used to emphasise the fact that a person refuses to do something; that they would have to be dead for it to happen.

Side splitting – an expression used when something is extremely funny, causing you to laugh so much that the sides of your body ‘split‘.

The jury is out – an expression to show no decision has been made on a subject, or that the answer is not clear.

Fact box

The English Oxford dictionary states that there are over 3,000 homonyms and 7,000 homophones in the English language, enough to give you the material for plenty of jokes. The word ‘raise’ is known as a ‘septet’. In the English language there are seven unique ways to spell this word, each with a different meaning (raise, rays, rase, raze, rehs, res, reis). This is the only septet in the English language, and surely the word with the most pun-tential!




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Having fun with puns


Puns are very simple types of jokes in English that rely on wordplay. They are a humorous way of using a word or phrase to suggest more than one meaning. In English many words have more than one meaning, these double-meaning words are called homonyms.

Homonyms are words that sound the same but have various meanings. For example ' bark ', which describes the outside of a tree, and 'bark', the sound a dog makes.

What did the thief say to the baker? Give me all your dough!

This pun plays with the word 'dough', which can mean the basic mixture of flour and water used to make bread but is also a slang term that means money.

When homonyms sound the same but you spell them differently, they are called homophones, like 'one' and 'won', or 'write' and 'right'.

Where do you find chili seeds? The North Pole.

This pun relies on the fact that chili and chilly sound the same but have very different meanings: a 'chili' is a spicy pepper, but 'chilly' means cold.
Puns have existed for a long time. There is some evidence that the ancient Egyptians used puns in hieroglyphs to leave
hidden
messages about their dead. The beloved English playwright, William Shakespeare, used puns often in his plays.

Puns are also used in marketing and for special occasions. On greeting cards you often find visual puns. For example, a funny birthday card can have a picture of a bumble bee with the text 'Ha-bee birthday'.

If you incorporate some puns into your language you will sound more like a native English speaker and will probably get a few laughs; but don't use too many or you will also get some groans!

 

Comprehension

Below you will find text comprehension questions. Read and listen to the text and answer the questions (we recommend you read first and then listen).

Having fun with puns

Quiz

 

Grammar in Use

Below you will find PDF documents with the Grammar in Use.

Intermediate: Homophones

Advanced: Puns

Vocabulary

Puns

Summary Vocabulary

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