British Studies Web Pages



Kinds of Wordplay

The range is very large - here is a selection of some common types almost all taken from a small number of recent newspapers (with a few from other sources). It is not comprehensive but an introduction. For a discussion of other linguistic aspects of headlines see - Grammar and lexical devices by Anna Tomczak.


Could you produce an equivalent list from the Polish printed media to match these? In each section are some unexplained Others at which you can try your hand with the aid of the references below, and speculate on what might be found in the original articles.


Some useful references

Ø       Baldick C 1990 The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms OUP

Ø       Cuddon J 1998 (4th ed) The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory

Ø       Crowther J (ed) 1999 Oxford Guide to British and American Culture OUP

Ø       Knowles E 199 A Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations OUP


Puns work by substitution of one meaning, sound, spelling and so on for another - they can be aural or visual and are very common. Ambiguity is essential for a pun, but locating the exact point at which a pun works is not always clear, and many involve meaning, spelling and sound together.

Puns based on meaning

  • Shady Deals - for an advertisement promoting summer houses (meaning a temporary wooden or tent structure in a garden - not a house on a dzia³ka). A colloquial idiom - anything shady is not quite legal so a pun based on meaning.

Others: Oxford blues/ Continentals adrift/ Check your pulses/ Band Aid


Puns based on sound

  • Jewel Purpose - on the wearing of jewellery. A pun based on sound - the near homophone Jewel/ Dual.

Others: Piques and troughs/ Blazing canon/ Pilau talk/ Labour’s Swiss role


Puns based on spelling

  • Champion Bows Out - on defeat in an archery competition - to bow out = to leave honourably. A pun based on spelling - the homograph Bow/ Bow.
  • Cornish Patsies - a review of a TV play involving a paragram (a play on letter order  - intentional misspelling) Pasty/ Patsy. A pasty is a well-known Cornish dish, a patsy - slang for an effeminate man. (Here even this explanation has unintentionally produced a pun, as ‘dish’ is a slang expression for a ‘fanciable’ person. It is difficult to avoid wordplay at times!)
  • In dog we trust - about an anti anti-hunting bill attitude. An example of reversal - In God we Trust
  • Spoonerisms are a specific case where the initial letters of two words become transferred - an example is the common pub name the Boar’s Head.
  • Noshtalgia - a portmanteau word made from nosh (children’s slang for food) and nostalgia. So here a café selling food remembered from childhood. Also Debonhair.


Puns based on word order

  • Head on the nail - the original idiomatic expression is to ‘hit the nail on the head’ used when someone comes up with an answer to a problem. Here used literally to refer to someone who had injured her famous head on a nail.


Puns based on association
  • Aromatherapy - wordplay without doing anything. A simple descriptive term placed above an article and photograph on food and working by association.

Others: Balancing act/ Easter rising/ Free radicals


Puns based on pronunciation

Not possible to reproduce in written form as it requires atypical pronunciation where the context would normally require another - a number are adduced and debated from Shakespeare’s plays. Speaking ironically is a common form of this wordplay while speaking sarcastically, scornfully and so on are less pleasant variations.


Quotations, references, allusions and clichés

Quotations are very common and are increasingly taken from popular culture. Any quotation is inevitably a reference to its source but could contain several other references to places, people and so on. References are not necessarily however to quotations but are usually obvious. An allusion is an indirect reference, a knowing hint, that at first glance is not obvious as a reference at all. When a reference becomes an allusion is impossible to say - it is the degree of indirectness and that of course depends on the reader. Clichés represent overused examples of the other three, often when used repeatedly in a fixed context, thus killing the pleasure of the original wordplay. A good headline plays with a cliché - wittily breathing new life into it so that it is no longer a cliché! Many collocations are clichés. See Language Rules OK by Ma³gorzata Zdybiewska, which gives an extended discussion and concludes with a series of cliché quizzes.


All quotations, references, allusions and clichés require a common cultural inheritance, increasingly it is global, often European, but for some it is societally- or linguistically-specific, or even at the level of a region or a social group, and requires (like a joke) their shared knowledge for comprehension.


Direct quotation

  • Up, Up and Away - about a trapeze artist. A direct quotation from a line of a 1960s popular song (quotations from lyrics and film titles are popular, and as they are often one themselves - they are quotations from quotations!).
  • Come into my parlour - the opening to a nursery rhyme which continues ‘said the spider to the fly’ - by which the nature of the article and the remainder of the nursery rhyme are both made clear
  • … leaves a sinking feeling - from a review of the film Titanic. A quotation of a clichéd popular expression for mounting disappointment

Others: Death of a Salesman/ We’re so pretty …/ Now we are one/ All that glisters …


Wordplay on quotation
  • See Naples and diet - a reference to the popular saying (See Naples and Die) used in a heading in the tourist section on eating out in Naples. A pun based on sound.
  • Seven’s Deadly Sins - a (poor) review for a restaurant named Seven. A reference to … guess what? A pun based on spelling
  • Gathering no moss - a radio documentary about Mick Jagger. A reference to a proverb and showing characteristic omission known as ellipsis - a rolling stone gathers no moss - written confident that the audience shares the knowledge and can supply the missing part.
  • Northern Light - about a Scandinavian footballer. An allusion to the aurora borealis/ the northern lights.

Others: Pounds of flesh/ For peat’s sake/ The cars that Jag built/ A match for all seasons


Societal reference and allusion

There are many of these but they are not always so easy - here is an example:

  • Is page 3 set to go bust? - about a long-running feature in The Sun newspaper of a photograph of a naked (or semi-naked) woman on page 3 (a reference requiring shared knowledge therefore). A pun based on the homophone bust (finished)/ bust (breast). Also here a double entendre (a pun with sexual content) often used in innuendo (suggesting sexual content to sexually-innocent conversation). Notice the typical use of foreign vocabulary for dealing with taboo.
  • Seaman sinks Armada - a nationalistic headline of a football match between England and Spain. Seaman a reference to the England goalkeeper, and the Armada a historical reference to the name both of the 16th C Spanish fleet and the battle in which it was defeated in the English Channel.


Poetic devices

These are relatively easy to spot as they rely on sound not meaning

  • Brown Britain - a TV programme by those of mixed race - alliteration.
  • Mule cool - about shoe fashion (mules are a kind of shoe) - rhyme - in this case a half-rhyme.
  • He took a butcher’s - about a crime (by a butcher) discovered when someone peeped through a window. A pun from cockney rhyming slang: a butcher’s hook = look

Others: Mussels in Brussels/ World wine web/ From here to fraternity


Figurative devices

These depend on such figures of speech as metaphor, metonymy, hyperbole and so on, but especially irony. This is very difficult because it works explicitly by relation to shared knowledge and has no meaning without it - a number of the examples above also contain irony e.g. Brown Britain.


Lexical wordplay (not all illustrations are from newspapers - but to give the ideas)

A great range of lexical and orthographic wordplay is also found in the popular music press, as well as in the names of bands and in their lyrics though not presented here. The internet too makes great play with the visual appearance of language. Other lexical aspects can be found in Grammar and lexical devices by Anna Tomczak.

  • Ye olde tea shoppe - in this case mock old-English, as authentic as mock-Tudor etc styles in contemporary architecture.
Foreign phrases
  • Prêt-à-manger - the very successful chain of upmarket sandwich shops found in London - modelled on Prêt-à-porter. This is mock, not real French of course.
Word formation
  • In Blairesque fashion - based on picturesque - about appearance (not only political) in the Labour Party
  • Reading between the (Head)lines - the title of the item - a reference to a proverbial saying, visually presented to highlight the wordplay.
  • Hello, Dolly, Er.... Dolly - a review of a book about cloning, using the ‘Er …’ convention for imitating embarrassed hesitation in speech - and also a reference to the original cloned sheep and the well-known musical.
  • PostColonialismS / Political CorrectnessesS - a recent conference title provides another good example of typographical play which has become a common ’postmodern’ convention.
Spelling play
  • Beez Neez - which should be Bee’s Knees an idiom meaning the best. Widely used in product advertising and in shop names as a means of attracting attention. Also Kutz - hairdressers.
‘Bad’ taste
  • Athlete’s Foot - the name of a multinational chain of sport’s shoe shops, referring to the fungal disease that occurs between the toes of feet encased in rarely washed socks - thus a pun on meaning. An illustration of what would formerly have been bad taste, and thus then incomprehensible as a marketing strategy. A reflection of a society which no longer simply tolerates colloquial use and meaning, but actively celebrates it. Language always follows cultural change.


  • Exploding Plastic Inevitable - the Andy Warhol mixture of pop and surrealism.


Multiple wordplay

  • Oil’s swell for whales  - it can be read All’s well for Wales. In here there are (at least) a pun based on sound, a pun based on meaning, a pun based on spelling, a possible reference to a Shakespeare quotation and a popular expression! Daily Mail 27-12-00
  • B-r-r-anson does a Reggie Perrin Richard Branson - chairman of the Virgin empire and media celebrity, taking his clothes off for a naked dip into the sea as part of an advertising campaign - hence B-r-r- (= cold). Reggie Perrin was a character in a 70’s TV comedy The Rise and Fall of Reggie Perrin who famously performed similarly. The construction ‘To do a …‘ coupled with the name of a well-known person, is a colloquial figure of speech for referring to an activity famously (notoriously) done by that person. The need for shared societal knowledge is essential. Sunday Mirror 5-3-00

Others: You can’t make a Hamlet without breaking heads


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