It is a type of wordplay and is sometimes known as a pun. Paronomasia is a rhetorical device of which there are two different types (see more below). When a writer uses paronomasia, they are very aware of its meaning and how it may be used. The words they choose should sound effectively the same but have different meanings. They are used to emphasize the difference between them, confusing and surprise the reader, but above all else, they create humor.
Definition of Paronomasia
Paronomasia is a rhetorical device that is similar to a pun. It’s used to make readers laugh and think more deeply about a particular situation and the words used in it. There are two different kinds of paronomasia, the first of which can be divided into five different categories.
Types of Paronomasia
This is the broadest type of paronomasia. Its five categories are listed below:
- Homophonic: these are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. One of the simplest and most common examples is “read” and “red.”
- Homographic: words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. For example, “bass,” as in the instrument, and “bass” as in the fish.
- Homonymic: an example of paronomasia in which the writer includes examples of homographic and homophonic puns. Understanding this kind of paronomasia requires readers to understand the previous two categories.
- Recursive: two puns appear in the same sentence, and the second one’s meaning depends on the first. This is one of the most complex kinds of paronomasia and may, in some instances, go unnoticed by the reader.
- Compound: two or more puns appear in the same sentence. This can make the sentence confusing on first reading and require the reader to think deeply about what the writer wants them to hear/learn.
This is the second type of paronomasia. It’s concerned with word games and visual puns that require plays to decipher images, figure out what they have in common, etc. It is less common than typographic paronomasia. They are found in cartoons, heraldry, art, and advertising. They are often used to convey a secondary meaning that may or may not be obvious.
Examples of Paronomasia in Literature
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
This play is filled with a wide variety of literary devices that are perfect for readers to analyze. There are at least three different examples of paronomasia in Romeo and Juliet. There is a particularly famous example that occurs in the conversation between Mercutio and Romeo. The latter has recently been fatally wounded by Tybalt, one of Juliet’s family members. Romeo sits at Mercutio’s side in Act III Scene 1 while he says:
Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough.
Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.
This example of an understatement is followed by these lines:
No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat to scratch a man to death! A braggart, a rogue, a villain that fights by the book of arithmetic! Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.
To translate, Mercutio is describing his wound in these lines. He says that it’s not as “wide” as a church door, but it’ll do the job of killing him. He uses a pun when he says that tomorrow Romeo will find him a “grave man.” He’s referring to the fact that he’ll be “grave,” as in the emotion, as well as in his grave. Mercutio is doomed to succumb to his wounds.
Another example can be found closer to the beginning of the play, Act I Scene 4, in another exchange between Romeo and Mercutio. The latter speaks first, saying:
Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.
He’s encouraging his friend to get out on the dance floor, enjoy the moment and forget about his and his family’s troubles. Romeo replies with:
Not I, believe me: you have dancing shoes,
With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.
This is an example of a homophonic paronomasia, meaning that the speaker uses words that sound the same but are spelled differently to convey something about their situation. In this case, he uses “sole” and “soul.” He says that Mercutio has “dancing shoes / With nimble soles.” His friend is able to move easily on the dance floor because, unlike Romeo, his soul is not weighed down with “lead” or Romeo’s unrequited love.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
In this well-loved novel, there are several examples of paronomasia. One of the most commonly cited can be found in a conversation between the Mouse and Alice in chapter three. The mouse starts off by saying:
‘Mine is a long and a sad tale!’
This makes Alice think that the Mouse is talking about “tail” rather than “tale.” It leads to an example of visual paronomasia in Alice’s imagined vision of the Mouse’s story. It appears as a long, waving line of text that resembles a tail. She replies to the mouse, saying:
‘It is a long tail, certainly,’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; ‘but why do you call it sad?’ And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking.
This clever play on words is a great example of how paronomasia is used to create subtle examples of humor. It’s easy enough not to notice this play on words, but more likely than not. All readers will find humor in this example.
Read Lewis Carroll’s poetry.
A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne
This well-loved poem contains a famous example of paronomasia. The poem is written, likely, from Donne’s own perspective. It conveys his desire to be forgiven by God for the unnamed but terrible sins that he’s committed. He asks God to see him as a good person and as someone who’s capable of more than what he’s already done suggests. He uses these lines in the first stanza:
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Readers should take note of the use of “done” and “more” in this passage. The former is an example of paronomasia with the poet’s last name, and the latter is related to his wife’s name, “More.” They are examples of homographic paronomasia.
Read more John Donne poems.
Related Literary Terms
- Black Humor: a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Humor: a literary device that writers use in order to make their readers or audience members laugh. It should be entertaining.
- Satire/Satirical Comedy: used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.
- Aphorism: short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.
- Homograph: a word that shares the same spelling but a different meaning with another word. These words are tricky parts of the English language.