Definition: Noun. Word play, to pun (using similar sounding words or phrases for humor, ambiguity, or effect). Ironically, the word is often misspelled as “paranomasia” with an “a” rather than the “o.”
Etymology: From the Latin, from Greek paranomasia (“to slightly change the name of something”); derived from para meaning “beside” and onoma meaning “name.” Although Oxford English Dictionary lists the first usage of paronomasia in 1579, humans have been punning far earlier than that. Egyptian pyramid builders were certainly gluttons for punishment, but after their work, they enjoyed a little pun. According to Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch, many puns can be found in their writings (hieroglyphic writing occurred between 3200 BC to 400 AD): “Many Egyptian words which looked different when written in the hieroglyphic sounded the same when pronounced. This was thought of as a meaningful connection rather than as mere coincidence. Much myth-making arises from puns, such as the story that men (remtj) came from tears (remtj) of the sun god.”
Although the art of punnery is often maligned, it has its share of aficionados. Edgar Allen Poe wrote of pun-envy: “Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike [them] are least able to utter them.” Author James Boswell, who wrote a brilliant biography of lexicographer Samuel Johnson (who was no fan of puns, by the way), opined: “A good pun may be admitted among the small excellencies of lively conversation.” Puns are not only found in lively, witty conversation, they have also found their way into great literary works. William Shakespeare, for example, was a very punny writer. He begins his history play, Richard III (written in 1591), with a pun on the word sun (sun of York/son of York): “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
Lewis Carroll was a master of word play. His famous work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, demonstrates his keen sense of language — inventing new words and punning playfully. In chapter 9, the Mock Turtle describes his education to Alice: “When we were little we went to school in the sea. [We learned] reeling and writhing, of course, to begin with… and the different branches of Arithmetic — Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision. The Classical master… was an old crab, he was.”
Read related post: Top Ten Puns
For further reading: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner, Oxford University Press (1991), http://www.etymonline.com. Magic in Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch (Google Books). Get Thee to a Punnery: An Anthology of Intentional Assaults Upon the English Language by Richard Lederer, Wyrick (2006).