Word play or wordplay is a literary technique and a form of wit in which the words that are used become the main subject of the work, primarily for the purpose of intended effect or amusement. Examples of word play include puns, phonetic mix-ups such as spoonerisms, obscure words and meanings, clever rhetorical excursions, oddly formed sentences, double entendres, and telling character names (such as in the play The Importance of Being Earnest, Ernest being a given name that sounds exactly like the adjective earnest).
Word play is quite common in oral cultures as a method of reinforcing meaning.
Examples of visual orthographic and sound-based word play abound in both alphabetically and non-alphabetically written literature (e.g. Chinese).
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- "Hurry up and get to the back of the ship," Tom said sternly.
- "We'll have to rehearse that," said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car.
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Most writers engage in word play to some extent, but certain writers are particularly committed to, or adept at, word play as a major feature of their work . Shakespeare's "quibbles" have made him a noted punster. Similarly, P.G. Wodehouse was hailed by The Times as a "comic genius recognized in his lifetime as a classic and an old master of farce" for his own acclaimed wordplay. James Joyce, author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, is another noted word-player. For example, Joyce's phrase "they were yung and easily freudened" clearly implies the more conventional "they were young and easily frightened"; however, the former also makes an apt pun on the names of two famous psychoanalysts, Jung and Freud.
An epitaph, probably unassigned to any grave, demonstrates use in rhyme.
- Here lie the bones of one 'Bun'
- He was killed with a gun.
- His name was not 'Bun' but 'Wood'
- But 'Wood' would not rhyme with gun
- But 'Bun' would.
Other writers and entertainers closely identified with word play include:
- Forrest J Ackerman, magazine editor, coined "sci-fi"
- Aesop Rock
- Bo Burnham
- Nisio Isin, author of Monogatari (series)
- Piers Anthony in his Xanth novels
- Big Daddy Kane
- Big L
- Isaac Brock, vocalist/lyricist of Modest Mouse
- Childish Gambino
- George Carlin
- Lewis Carroll, in his Alice books, among other works
- G. K. Chesterton
- Chino XL
- Brian P. Cleary in his "Rhyme and PUNishment: Adventures in Wordplay"
- Max Collins, lead vocalist and lyricist of Eve 6
- Crooked I
- Ian Dury
- Benny Hill
- Bo Burnham
- Bob Dylan
- Elvis Costello
- Willard R. Espy collected various anthologies of word play
- Jasper Fforde
- Lupe Fiasco
- Craig Finn, lead vocalist and lyricist of The Hold Steady
- Sage Francis
- Frenzal Rhomb
- Homer in his famous works The Iliad and The Odyssey
- Mitch Hurwitz in his acclaimed TV-series Arrested Development, which is widely noted for its unusually intricate and complex use of word play.
- Franz Kafka, perhaps most notably in The Judgment.
- Kool Keith
- Jack Kerouac (in On the Road and arguably more so in Visions of Cody)
- John Lennon in (In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works) ("The Nasties Are Booming Us!")
- Till Lindemann
- Lloyd Banks
- Apathy (Rapper)
- Celph Titled
- Logic (rapper)
- MF DOOM
- Seth MacFarlane
- Marilyn Manson
- Manila Luzon
- Groucho Marx
- A. A. Milne's poem "In the dark", in Now We Are Six, has been noted for its emulation of crib talk, a form of monologue word play used by infants to practice phonology, syntax and conversation skills
- Jason Mraz
- Alan Moore
- Dave Mustaine
- Pete Wentz
- Vladimir Nabokov
- Flann O'Brien
- Van Dyke Parks
- Emo Philips, stand-up comedian, revered for his paraprosdokians and garden-path jokes
- Thomas Pynchon
- Spider Robinson in his Callahan series, e.g. Lady Slings the Booze.
- Rhyme Asylum
- George Bernard Shaw
- The Apocryphal book of Susanna features elements of word play in the original Greek
- Steven Wright
- Andy Zaltzman
- John Donne
- J. Cole
- Earl Sweatshirt
- George Watsky
- Angel Haze
- Kendrick Lamar
- Tyler, the Creator
- Capital Steez
- Joey Bada$$
- Lil Wayne
- Robb Flynn
- Corey Taylor
- Craig Benzine
- Big Sean
- Vsauce, a YouTube channel hosted by Michael Stevens.
Word play can enter common usage as neologisms.
Word play can cause problems for translators: e.g. in the book Winnie-the-Pooh a character mistakes the word "issue" for the noise of a sneeze, a resemblance which disappears when the word "issue" is translated into another language.
- "wordplay: definition of wordplay in Oxford dictionary (British & World English)". Askoxford.com. 31 July 2013. Retrieved 6 August 2013.
- "Forrest Ackerman Obituary at Mania.com". Archived from the original on 16 December 2008.
- Corliss, Richard (6 December 2008). "Forrest Ackerman Obituary at Time.com".
- Miller, G. (1962) Foreword by a psychologist, pp. 13–17, In Weir RH. (1962). Language in the Crib. University of Michigan; Edition 2, (1970) Mouton. OCLC 300988484
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