Paronomasia: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

If your pet goldfish has heard about paronomasia, she most likely learned it in a school. (Get it? Because fish swim in schools?) If you groaned after reading that last sentence, chances are you're already familiar with paronomasia. Explore this lesson to come to terms with this term and its many fun forms.

Playing on Words: Paronomasia Defined

Many believe that paronomasia is the highest form of humor, and the Greeks who invented the term would certainly agree. Derived from paronomadzein ('to call by a slightly different name'), paronomasia is a playing on words that sound or look similar, or more simply put, a pun.

Puns rely on a variety of word relations to create a humorous effect, including…

Homophones: words that are spelled differently but sound the same ('boar' & 'bore')

Homographs: words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, often as a result of changing syllable stress ('defect' & 'defect')

Homonyms: words that are spelled AND sound the same but have different meanings ('fawn'-young deer & 'fawn'-to obsess over)

Whether or not someone gets the joke often greatly depends on highly localized and idiomatic pronunciations and interpretations of the words used, so puns are definitely not always universal in their appeal. However, the examples appearing below should be easy to understand.

Fun with Puns: Examples of Paronomasia

Homophonic

Anyone who has seen Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest quickly learns that the play's title is one huge homophonic pun! The play's plot centers on John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, who drive the hilarity that ensues when they both assume the name 'Ernest.' In the end, the connection between the homophones 'earnest' and 'Ernest' yields a lesson on the real importance of maintaining one's own identity.

Photo of Irish author Oscar Wilde wearing his favorite coat
Photo of Irish author Oscar Wilde wearing his favorite coat

Oscar Wilde reportedly once boasted that he could craft a pun on any subject. When someone sarcastically suggested the Queen, he simply replied But the Queen is not a subject, thereby punning on the homonym subject.

Homographic

This type of paronomasia can be tricky to execute since homographs often need to be heard to understand the wordplay. For instance, in an episode of The Simpsons, Marge Simpson instructs Bart to 'run like the wind.' Seems fine, right? Only problem is, Marge pronounced 'wind' as wined, thereby confusing the words for 'blowing air' and 'twisting around a spool.' When Lisa corrects her, Marge replies 'What? I've only read it in books!'

Homonymic

The writing room for the popular science series Mythbusters is fertile territory for all manner of puns. To test whether some sense can be slapped into him, Grant Imahara must first induce a mentally altered state by being locked in a refrigerator truck until his body temperature begins to drop. As they lock him away, his companions instruct him to 'chill out.' What they have exploited here is the formal definition of the word 'chill,' (to become colder) in addition to its idiomatic usage meaning 'to calm down, relax.'

Adam Savage (left) and Jamie Hyneman (right) are the pun-loving hosts of Mythbusters, which is full of examples of paronomasia often based on punning scientific terms and concepts.
Mythbusters hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman at YouTube Live 2008

Compound

A compound pun can simply be any combination of multiple types of paronomasia; for example, using homophonic and homographic puns in one statement. We can see another instance of compound paronomasia when we combine elements from two phrases to make a single play on words. One example from Futurama has Professor Farnsworth propose a street race on the 'Möbius Drag Strip,' combining two very different concepts that both happen to have 'strip' in their names.

As this photo of a Mobius Strip shows, the mathematical construct was certainly never intended for use in drag racing.
Photo of a Möbius Strip made from green construction paper

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