Paronomasia is a type of play on words. It involves the use of words that are similar in sound or appearance but different in meaning, like “blue” and “blew.”
Because of the possible interpretations, paronomasia creates ambiguous, funny, or thought-provoking sentences. Due to this, we often encounter it in comedy, theatrical plays, and news headlines.
What is paronomasia?
Paronomasia (also known as a pun) is a literary device that is based on different possible meanings of a word. Because paronomasia is used to make readers or members of an audience laugh, we typically encounter it in jokes or stand-up comedy. Alternatively, writers deploy paronomasia to make audiences think more deeply about a situation or a phrase.
Because paronomasia creates attention-grabbing sentences and is easy to remember, news headlines, advertisements, and business names often feature this type of play on words. For example, “Thai-tanic” and “Planet of the Grapes” are instances of paronomasia used in shop names.
Paronomasia involves words that are similar in sound or spelling but have different meanings. These words are collectively called homonyms.
Sometimes paronomasia involves homophones: words that sound the same but are spelled differently, like “hair” and “hare.”
Words that are spelled the same are homographs. Homographs can either have the same pronunciation (like “beam” signifying either timber or a ray of light) or be pronounced differently (e.g., “tear” meaning a rip or a teardrop). Both can be used in paronomasia.
Keep in mind that homonym is an umbrella term for both homographs and homophones.
Paronomasia example in literature
Lewis Carroll extensively uses paronomasia, among other forms of wordplay, in his works.
Other types of wordplay
Paronomasia should not be confused with other forms of wordplay that manipulate the multiple meanings of words and phrases:
- Double entendre: a phrase that holds two meanings, a literal and a figurative one. The latter is usually sexually suggestive or socially awkward. For example, the phrase “children make delicious snacks” can be interpreted to mean “children prepare snacks” or, in a humorous way, that children are delicious snacks themselves.
- Malapropism: a word that is replaced by a similar-sounding one by mistake. This typically results in humorous or absurd statements. For example, mixing up “obliterate” with “illiterate.”
- Paraprosdokian: a sentence or phrase that takes an unexpected turn toward the end, causing us to reinterpret the entire phrase. For example, the sentence “standing in the park today, I was wondering why a frisbee looks larger the closer it gets…then it hit me.”
Frequently asked questions about paronomasia
What is the purpose of play on words?
Play on words is used for several purposes depending on the context, such as:
- entertaining or amusing an audience with the clever arrangement of words, letters, or sounds.
- making language more interesting, original, and witty by using words creatively.
- allowing writers to draw attention to certain aspects of their work, be it characters or plot points.
What is an example of paronomasia?
An example of paronomasia is the phrase “he had a photographic memory, but it was never developed.” The wordplay here is around the word “developed” which means “to learn new things” but also “to process film.”