The Play on Words

Probably the most common form of humor in the English language is the "play on words." This is a joke in which the Teller equivocates on a word or phrase. The setup leads the Audience to believe the word means one thing. The punch line reveals it actually means something else. The Audience reaches the conclusion by identifying the real meaning of the word or phrase.

An example would be --

Question: Why will you never starve in the desert?
Answer: Because of the sandwiches there.

You can analyze it as follows:

Setup: We are asking about a way to prevent starvation --
       like a food.
Punch line: A "sandwich" is food, but not characteristic
            of a desert.
Conclusion: The real meaning is the "sand which is" in
            the desert, not "sandwiches."

Here is a "Tom Swifty" --

(Setup) "Come into my teepee," said the Indian Chief
(punch line) intently.
Conclusion: "Intently" means both "with intensity" and
            "from within a tent."

The typical "party joke" with its characteristic double entendre (French for "double meaning") is also a play on words. The setup uses a word in an ordinary context, but the punch line leads to the conclusion that it really refers to a sexual activity and/or body part.

Here are two examples for you to figure out.

See if you can identify:

  1. The setup
  2. The punch line
  3. The word or phrase with the double meaning
  4. Both meanings

Example #1 - from Atlas Shrugged:

[The looters have arrested Galt and are "escorting" him to the banquet.]

So swiftly that no one could catch the motion of his hand, the muscular man was holding Galt's arm and pressing an invisible gun against his ribs. "Don't make any false moves," he said in an expressionless voice.

"I never do," said Galt.

Example #2 - from Bobby Sandler:

Epitaph on the tombstone of Communism:


 << ANSWERS >>

While the term "play on words" is sometimes used to refer to puns, a pun fits into the "S, P, therefore C" formula in a different way.



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