Saturday, October 31, 2009

The pleasures of engaging in English wordplay

Most of the language we use and encounter in news reportage and in our day-to-day business transactions depends on the surface meanings of words and sentences. We rely largely on denotations or direct specific meanings, as opposed to connotations or implied or associated ideas, to get our ideas across clearly. This, of course, is mass communication and business communication as they should be—they need to stick to denotations as common ground for understanding and for reaching agreement. Indeed, we would be inviting confusion and misunderstanding by trying to foist unfounded or unwarranted connotations on a motley crowd.

Within more familiar and intimate circles, however, we can be more figurative and rhetorical in expressing our ideas with little risk of being misunderstood. We can actually make our messages more forceful, convincing, palatable—better still, even pleasurable—by occasionally spicing them with a simile, metaphor, and some other form of wordplay. Obviously, though, we can confidently engage in wordplay or be comfortable when at its receiving end only if we ourselves are familiar and conversant with its various forms and existing repertoire.

Wordplay is without any doubt one of the greatest pleasures of English. For us to fully partake of it, however, we need to continually widen our English vocabulary and our knowledge of the English idioms and figures of speech. To quote from the essay below that I wrote six years ago, “few can enjoy English-language wordplay at all unless they have already graduated from using English simply as a rickety pushcart for conveying information.”

The two-part essay that I am posting here is meant to be a brief orientation on the art of wordplay for serious learners of English. I thought it might also be of interest to Forum members who want to renew their love affair or passing acquaintance with an art form that’s now in danger of getting extinct in our part of the world due to misuse and disuse.

The power of wordplay

Part I

We can invest feeling and emotion in what we say by using such figures of speech as the simile, metaphor, and hyperbole. These are not new forms of expression at all. As early as 2,000 years ago, in fact, the Greeks had already made such a fine art of their language by cultivating as many as 80 rhetorical devices—“the flowers of rhetoric,” they called them. The figures of speech, of course, derive their power by unexpectedly comparing a subject to things already familiar to us, while rhetorical devices can stir our emotions with the surprisingly felicitous ways they arrange words in a sentence or passage.

Let’s now take a closer look at wordplay, or the witty, clever, malicious, insidious, or cruel manipulation of words themselves as phonemes or carriers of meaning.

The most common form of wordplay, of course, is punning. This is the often humorous play on a word’s different meanings or on the similar meanings and sounds of different words—with the requisite mild touch of mischief or malice, of course. The more razor-sharp and wounding the pun is to the target, the better and more satisfying it is to the third-party listener. For instance, if a club chair, unable to stop a talkative but incoherent member from dominating a meeting, tells all and sundry, “Blessed are they who have nothing to say and who cannot be persuaded to say it,” how do we react? We feel good not only at the wounding of the target’s ego but at the insult—at the power of the words to inflict the wound.

But puns fall flat if the speaker and listener don’t have a common referent and depth of understanding of the language. Many of Shakespeare’s puns, for instance, mean little now except to the most studious ears. In Hamlet, for example, Hamlet accuses Ophelia of unfaithfulness and verbally savages her: “Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go.” Hamlet built his pun around the word “nunnery” to wound Ophelia’s self-esteem and give vent to his rage. Yet up to now, over 400 years later, scholars, dramatists, and English professors still argue over what Shakespeare had really meant when he used “nunnery.” Some take it at face value: a place where disgraced women can take refuge from the jeers of society. Some take it on the figurative level to mean “Get out of here!” Others interpret it on the relational level as “You disgust me!” Researchers of Shakespearean English, however, have found that “nunnery” was a contemptuous allusion to “brothel” or “whorehouse.” This verbal cruelty, of course, is all but lost to the modern reader of Hamlet.

Now see how contemporary puns can elicit mirth or laughter (or our anger, if we ourselves are their targets) without having to go through the same analysis that we have done above: “Cole’s Law: Thinly sliced cabbage.” “Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?” “My accountant always writes religious phrases down the left side of the page. That’s his prophet margin.” “Shin: A very sensitive device for finding furniture in the dark.” “I used to think I was indecisive ... but now I am not sure.” Don’t they all have a delicious ring?

People also use wordplay simply for the sound of it, as in these juxtapositions of similar-sounding phonemes: “Is a sea of sequoias aqueous?” (William Waite). “Reverse errors to persevere” rearranged to “Errors prosper over beer” (Mike Rios). Then there is recreational linguistics, or “letterplays,” where words are manipulated by transposing their letters or syllables; the wordplay literature is full of them.

But an even more hilarious form of wordplay is taking any word from the dictionary and altering it by adding, subtracting, or changing only one letter, then supplying a definition for the newborn word. The Washington Post, which runs a “Style Invitational” on this type of wordplay, drew out from readers the following gems in the 2003 edition of the contest: “Intaxication. Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.” “Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.” “Glibido: All talk and no action.” “Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.” “Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high. “Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.” “Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a grub in the fruit you’re eating.” Marvelous, marvelous!

To fully appreciate and enjoy these verbal pyrotechniques, of course, we must continually widen not only our grammar but our semantic grasp of English. Few can enjoy English-language wordplay at all unless they have already graduated from using English simply as a rickety pushcart for conveying information. (October 13, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 13 and 16, 2003 © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Next Week: The Power of Wordplay - Part II


  1. I like one of Edwin Newman's pun:

    "Hey, you're stepping on the newspaper," she said.
    "These are the Times that dry men's soles," he said.

  2. Great pun! But that refers to The New York Times, of course, not to The Manila Times!

  3. The problem simply boils down to our differing points of view and the fine differences of the semantics of his and my propositions.

    Differences of....?