Famed comedian Groucho Marx in his 1933 film Duck Soup said, “I’ve got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it” (attributed to writer Bert Kalmar). The Marx Brothers were renowned for their wordplay. Some call it recreational linguistics, having fun with the language; others call it logology, but creative play with words is the hallmark of many inventive comedians and writers. Let’s look at some words that aren’t in every dictionary that pinpoint some ways to have fun with words.
Wellerisms: Tom Swifties and Croakers
Sam Weller is a character from Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (written in installments in 1836 to 1837). He would use a well-known quotation and follow it with a facetious sequel, for example, “’It all comes back to me now,’ the Captain said as he spat into the wind,” or “’Eureka!’ Archimedes said to the skunk.” A type of Wellerism is a Tom Swifty, named after Tom Swift, a character in a popular series of books written in the early 1900s by Edward L. Stratemeyer under the pseudonym Victor Appleton. Swifties are quotes attributed to Tom Swift plus a descriptive adverb: “’I know not which groceries to purchase,’ Tom said listlessly,” or “’I have no flowers,’ Tom said lackadaisically” (examples from Wikipedia). Similar to a Tom Swifty is a Croaker, where instead of an adverb that adds the pun or humor, it is the verb that adds the humor: “’I plan to renew my membership,’ Tom rejoined,” or “’I have to sweep up now,’ the custodian maintained.” (Tom Swifty [Word Play]) The invention of croakers is attributed to writer Roy Bongartz.
Paronomasia is a fancy word for puns. Examples of puns go far back in history to the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Romans. There are several types of puns, such as homophones or homographs. Homophones are words that are spelled differently but sound the same, such as pour and pore. In Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, he uses the homophones earnest and Ernest, the name of two characters. William Shakespeare is known for his homophonic puns, such as this conversation from Romeo and Juliet:
Mercutio: Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.
Romeo: Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes with nimble soles; I have a soul of lead . . . So stakes me to the ground I cannot move . . .
Homographs are words that are spelled the same but may have a different origin, meaning, or pronunciation, such as skip (to jump) and skip (to miss out). Here’s an example of a homographic pun: A dog having puppies on the sidewalk is considered to be littering.
The term malaphor is attributed to Lawrence Harrison who wrote about it in a Washington Post article. It is a combination of the words malapropism and metaphor in which two figures of speech are merged creating a humorous result. Some well-known figures have uttered malaphors unintentionally:
- Harris Faulkner, FOX news anchor: “That issue always seems to get kicked down the can.” (kick the can down the road + kick in the can, referring to Congress and the budget)
- Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader: “They are kicking the can down the table.” (kick the can down the road + come to the table, talking about stopping the government shutdown)
- Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist: referring to Ivanka Trump, “She is dumb as a brick.” (thick as a brick + dumb as a rock) (Malaphors)
“Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you” (Chiasmus). Here, the second half of the sentence is an inverted form of the first half. One famous chiasmus comes from former President John Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Another familiar example comes from Star-Kist tuna: “Star-Kist doesn’t want tuna with good taste, Star-Kist wants tuna that tastes good.” We can find examples in history; Socrates (5th century B.C.) said, “Bad men live that they may eat or drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”
Many other types of verbal play are equally as fun to read about, such as feghoot, double entendre, and rhopalic. Some make you groan, some make you laugh, and some test your wit. Are you clever at turning a witty phrase, or are you best at being an appreciative audience?
Diane Repass is a retired tenured assistant professor
from The University of Dubuque and now a beloved
writer for Plaid Swan Inc. She received her M.A. from
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.