What Is Paronomasia? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  January 26, 2024 3 min read

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.

Paronomasia example
“Baking Bad: Police say edible forms of pot hit new high”—this headline about the increase in edible marijuana consumption uses paronomasia twice.

“Bake” or “baked” is a slang term for drug intoxication, and “baking” sounds like “breaking,” an allusion to Breaking Bad, a popular TV series about the illegal drug trade. “High” has a double meaning: it means feeling euphoric due to drugs or something being great in quantity.


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 examples

Paronomasia involves words that are similar in sound or spelling but have different meanings. These words are collectively called homonyms.

Paronomasia example: Homonyms
The bicycles couldn’t stand on their own—they were two-tired.

Sometimes paronomasia involves homophones: words that sound the same but are spelled differently, like “hair” and “hare.”

Paronomasia example: Homophones
What do you call a bunch of rabbits walking backward in single-file fashion?
A receding hare line.

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.

Paronomasia example: Homographs
I knew someone who collected candy canes—they were all in mint condition.

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.

Paronomasia example in literature
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle describes his education to Alice:

“When we were little,” the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, “we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle—we used to call him Tortoise—”

“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?” Alice asked. “We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”

This is an instance of paronomasia because “Tortoise” in the British pronunciation sounds the same as “taught us,” creating a humorous effect. At the same time, Carroll subtly satirizes the Victorian educational system, which exaggerated the role of the teacher.

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.”
Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


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.”



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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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