Puns have been around for as long as we’ve had language. They’re a form of double speak, which exploits multiple meanings of a word or phrase. Like other forms of word play, puns rely on their delivery mechanism (i.e. the words) and the reconciliation of multiple meanings in the audiences’ mind is the source of humor.
In this post, I’ll share my approach to creating puns for your friends (e.g. “hey, I need a pun for this taco truck”), as well as on the spot competitively. Like anything, this is a skill that can be practiced, exercised, and improved.
Warning: your friends will hate you after applying these methods.
What is a pun?
Let’s define and label a few key components of a pun so as to help deconstruct them in the following examples. Note that all example puns in this post will fall under the “fish” category and from hereon forth “word” also includes phrases.
The base of the pun here is “minnow”, which is the word that falls under the “fish” category. The target, “me know,” is the implied word whose meaning fits into the sentence. The setup, “thanks for letting,” is the part of the sentence that allows the implied target word to make sense.
Here are some basic rules for what constitutes a pun.
The meaning of the target word must be categorically different than that of the base.
I was a fish out of water.
If the base meaning is too close or too similar to the target meaning, then the audience will think you’re saying a normal sentence and won’t recognize that it’s a pun. Basically, if this could be a legitimate sentence without the pun, then it wouldn’t count as a real pun. Note that many idioms or expressions wouldn’t count as puns, as they don’t exploit a second meaning of the word.
The number of syllables must match
The number of syllables in the base word and target word must match.
He’s small so he’s a perfect tilapia (“lap”) dog.
This wouldn’t work, because the base word is three syllables, whereas the target word is only one. The target is only using a single syllable of the base word, when it should be using all of them. Note that when you hear it, it doesn’t make much sense, and you’d probably have to ask for an explanation, as well as permission to hit the offender.
We’re in a race and I’m about tilapia (“to lap ya”).
In this example, the target word is “to lap ya”, which employs all of the syllables offered from the base word.
How to pun?
Puns are a constrained problem set. Given a base word, there are a finite number target words and corresponding setups that can be created. Here are the steps to creating them.
1. Start with the base word:
Then, break the word into a set of syllables and sounds.
2. Then, tweak and morph the sound of each syllable. Substitute homophones or homonyms for each syllable. From this process, create a list of target words:
3. Finally, pick a target word you like, then construct a sentence around it so that the phrase makes sense:
I’m glad they didn’t go with salmon (someone) else.
My stoner tax evading uncle said “I’m avoiding Uncle Salmon (Sam, man)."
I got so high that I broke out of my mental Salmon (cell, man)
From this deconstructed approach, you can see that there are a limited number of potential “target” words that can be derived from any given “base” word.
Here are some additional tips to keep in mind.
Look out for common suffixes and prefixes and leverage them.
If the base word has “re”, “de”, “un”, “ing”, “anti”, “co”, “dis”, “ex”, “fore”, “mid”, etc. or other common sounds that can be a prefix or suffix, then an easy way to find a pun is to use them in your target word. Example:
It was before the light turned on. It was lamprey (lamp-pre).
The magician made the rabbit disa-piranha (disappear on a) whim.
Your target word can be a portmanteau.
Nobody said that your target word had to be a real word! If your base word has syllables where each syllable can be a standalone word, exercise some creative freedom by using your setup to create a custom portmanteau.
She had a circular band in her hair—it was a herring (hair ring)
I had a pail full of praise—it was a barracudas (barrel-kudos).
The key for custom portmanteaus is that the setup has to be comprehensive enough so that the audience understands how each syllable of your target word fits.f
Make up names, but sparingly.
Got a tough sound in your target word that isn’t a real word? Have it be a friend’s name or make up a name completely. This is an easy and obvious way to get out of a bind. Note that using this will definitely both limit the potential hilarity and boost the groan-worthiness of your pun.
That American rock star’s lesser known female cousin is anchovy (Ann Jovi).
Watch out for single syllable words.
They are easy, but no self-respecting punner would whip out any old rhyme. The target word has to have another phonetic similarity with the base word, aside from the fact that it rhymed. Does it start with the same letter? Or is there the same consonant cluster (i.e. two adjacent consonants like “br” or “sh”)? Or do they phonetically sound the same?
This is the pun of my breams (dreams).
Stick the pun at the end of the sentence.
This is a generic comedy rule. Keeping the word to the end of the sentence will be more surprising and save the laughs for the end.
Salmon (someone) else told me.
I don’t know who did it, but it was salmon (someone).
Make your setup use the meanings of both the base and the target.
If you want to elevate your pun into a joke that has standalone humor that is funny even outside the context of punning in a category, construct your setup so that it creates a scenario that hits the meanings of both the base and the target.
A fish from New Mexico is called an albacore-que (Albuquerque).
How to Pun Sling?
If you’re interested in the riveting world of competitive punning, here are some tips to coming up with puns on the spot.
The first step here is to not panic.
Then, create a mental list of all of the words that fall within the category given by the judges.
Go down each word in your mental list and try to find a pun in there. (Once you have done enough puns, you become adept at quickly assessing the “pun” ability of certain words.) If the word is longer than three syllables and has some really weird sounds in there, chances are it’ll be very difficult to come up with a pun. Though there is a trade off—that means that other competitors probably won’t have come up with a pun and you have that in your back pocket.
Delivery is just as important. You could say the worst pun in the world, but if said with such unwavering “screw you” confidence, your audience will love it, maybe.
Practice makes perfect
The best way to do this is to get together with your friends then randomly choose a category. Then go in a circle and start making puns.
If that is too high octane for you, then practice by writing puns. Do the same thing, but in the relaxed atmosphere of your home, far from the judging minds of your friends. Practice thinking about how you can use sounds from words in different and unusual ways.
Have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously!
Andy Jiang is a comic, writer, and developer in San Francisco. Follow him on twitter, check out his projects, or read his other blog posts.