The Grammarphobia Blog

Do puns change word history?

Q: Can you say something about how wordplay—intentional, often whimsical linguistic innovation—affects etymology?

A: English speakers have been playing with words since Anglo-Saxon days, as we noted in a recent post about the word “play,” but we don’t see evidence that wordplay has significantly influenced English etymology. In fact, the reverse seems to be the case: the evolution of the language has made possible much of the wordplay in English.

Language change, especially change in spelling and pronunciation, has given rise to many puns that use homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings, origins, or spellings) and homographs (words that look alike but differ in meaning, origin, or pronunciation).

For example, Lewis Carroll plays with the homophones “axis” and “axes” in Alice in Wonderland (1865). When Alice tries to show off her knowledge, the Duchess interrupts her: “ ‘You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis—’ / ‘Talking of axes,’ said the Duchess, ‘chop off her head!’ ”

However, this wordplay wouldn’t have worked back in King Ælfred’s day. In Old English, “axis” was eax and “axes” was aexan. The two words didn’t become homophones until the early 17th century.

Shakespeare plays with the homophones “son” and “sun” at the beginning of Richard III, believed written in the early 1590s: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

That play on words might perhaps have squeaked by in Old English, but it wouldn’t have worked quite as well. In the epic poem Beowulf, for example, “son” is sunu and “sun” is sunne. And, no, the anonymous author didn’t play with them.

As for homographic wordplay, Dickens has Pip, the narrator of Great Expectations (1860-61), use “point” as both a verb and a noun: “They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me.”

Again, this play on words wouldn’t have worked in Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150). The verb and noun “point” appeared in the Middle English period (roughly 1150-1500), largely borrowed from Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

And here’s a homographic example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) that combines two meanings of “grave”—the adjective’s serious sense, which appeared in the mid-1500s, and the noun’s burial sense, which showed up sometime before 1000.

When Mercutio is fatally stabbed in a sword fight, Romeo tries to comfort him by saying, “Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.” The dying Mercutio responds: “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

Although language change has given us many puns, it has also taken many back. Because of pronunciation changes since Elizabethan times, for instance, much of Shakespeare’s wordplay doesn’t play well with modern audiences.

Consider this comment by Thersites in Troilus and Cressida about Ajax on the eve of a battle with Hector: “Ajax goes up and down the field, asking for himself.”

In Elizabethan times, “Ajax” was pronounced “a jakes”— the same as a now obsolete term for an outhouse. So Thersites was suggesting that Ajax was so afraid of fighting Hector that he couldn’t control his bowels.

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