Double Trouble: The Good and the Bad of Literary Puns

Puns, rhymes, and other wordplay have long been the hallmark of winning children’s lit. Treasured works like Alice in Wonderland and A Light in the Attic have proven that the deeper the rabbit hole of absurd double meanings and nonsensical tongue twisters, the better the brain candy. Next in line in this fanciful tradition is Salman Rushdie’s pun-filled boy adventure story, Luka and the Fire of Life. From Fire Bugs with heated tempers to in-console-able mothers who don’t understand video game paraphernalia, Rushdie creates an alternate universe full of doppelgangers and tellingly named distant lands that make for a treacherous journey rife with double meaning and obvious humor.

Outside the realm of children’s books, the pun as a literary technique has held a patchy reputation. Although puns today are mostly associated with their unfortunate ubiquity in porn titles and textbook humor, virtually every literary genre through the ages has employed the pun — whether for wit, flourish, or thematic exploration. Here is a list of some creative uses of the pun, and the notable highs and lows of its use as applied by everyone from bards to boy bands to The Bible itself.

William Shakespeare

“Get thee to a nunnery!” Does Hamlet mean a convent? Yes. Or a whorehouse? That, too. From ripening buds, to de foot et de con, to the homoerotically laced Coriolanus, Shakespeare rode hard the Elizabethan golden age of punnery: According to scholar Samuel T. Coleridge, a Shakespearean play contained an average of 78 puns, and over the life of his career Shakespeare had managed to work in no less than 3000 puns into his oeuvre. Filthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns, written by scholar and dramatist Pauline Kiernan is an entertaining compendium of Shakespeare’s sexual puns and their often lost meanings. According to Kiernan, Shakespeare employed clusters of sexual puns to explore questions of philosophy, politics, and morality. From Julius Caesar: ‘What need we any spur [penis] but our own cause / To prick us to redress?’ Caesar goes on to say that their enterprise should not be stained by venereally diseased oats [testicles] — meaning weaklings.