Onomastic Puns

By Rennick, Robert M. | Word Ways, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Onomastic Puns


Rennick, Robert M., Word Ways


By far the most popular form of word play is the pun. Linguists who prefer big words call this paronomasia. What it boils down to is a word, phrase, or idiomatic expression with more than one meaning, or two words with the same sound but different meanings. The humor comes when you expect a word to mean something but it turns out unexpectedly to mean something else. Many personal names also lend themselves to puns. The simplest kind is the punning definition: Smithereens = little pieces of someone named Smith, reported by John Bailey in "Definitions That May Be Right Or May Not" in the Oct 31 1953 Saturday Evening Post.

Historically, name puns can be traced to classical times, certainly to the Scriptures. As the 19th century British folklorist Mark Antony Lower pointed out, one of the first puns was inflicted by Jesus on his disciple Simon by calling him Peter (meaning "rock") and affirming that "upon this rock will I build my church."

One of the most prolific personal name punsters was the famed Kentucky newspaperman George D. Prentice. Sprinkled throughout his Louisville Journal for nearly 30 years were short paragraphs of satiric humor, based on news accounts from other papers; many made fun of anti-Whig politicians, his own particular butts. In 1860 many of them were compiled in a privately printed volume, Prenticeana (or Wit and Humor in Paragraphs). Here are some of the best:

* Rhode Island has declined to re-elect Dutee J. Pearce to Congress. She has discharged her dutee.

* A gentleman killed himself in Florida for the love of a Miss Bullit. The poor fellow could not live with a Bullit in his heart.

* Mr. William Hood was robbed near Corinth, Alabama. The Corinth paper says that the name of the highwayman is unknown, but there is no doubt that he was a robbin' Hood.

* Mr. John Love of Alabama was recently lost during a passage from Texas to Mexico. We had supposed that no love would ever be lost between those countries.

* In a recent criminal trial in Texas, a certain General Rule took it in high dudgeon because he was challenged by the Commonwealth's attorney. The sensitive gentleman ought to have remembered that there are exceptions to all Rules.

* James Ray and John Parr have started a locofoco paper in Maine called the Democrat. Parr, in all that pertains to decency, is below Zero, and Ray is below Parr.

* A friend sends us a letter of General Pillow which he asks us to notice. We have more important matters on hand. When we have disposed of them, we may attend to the Pillow case.

* Bill English got up a bad substitute for a good bill. We hope that his constituents will at their next election get up a good substitute for a bad Bill.

* Mr. Brown, editor of the St. Louis Democrat, was married a few days ago to a very beautiful and accomplished young lady, Miss Mary Gunn. May their wedded life be happy, and may a little "son of a Gunn" rise up to bless them.

* A woman in Florida named Cross lately gave birth to an infant son which weighed only one pound. That Cross wasn't hard to bear.

* Old Rough and Ready has proved himself a first rate Taylor. He always gives his Mexican customers fits.

Prentice may be best remembered for telling us about Kentucky Congressman William J. Graves who killed Maine Congressman Jonathan Cilley in a duel in Maryland on February 4, 1838. Graves' second was Henry A. Wise, a Virginia Congressman and fellow Whig. Prentice thought the affair was simultaneously grave, wise and silly.

A close second among 19th century name punsters, though not as outrageous and certainly not as original, was Mark Antony Lower. From literary sources personally known to him came many of the puns that are still shared in punning sessions throughout the English-speaking world. The best are found in his book English Surnames: An Essay on Family Nomenclature (London, 1875).

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