What Is Word Play?

Jessica Ellis

Word play is a type of literary device in which the words themselves become the subject. Often done for entertainment or educational purposes, word play involves toying with the meaning, construction, or sounds of words. Some common types of word play include puns, alliteration, palindromes, and rhyme.

"A man, a plan, a canal: Panama" is a well known palindrome.
"A man, a plan, a canal: Panama" is a well known palindrome.

The wide world of puns provides considerable fodder for word players and epic literary figures alike. William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and other literary greats are known for spectacular punning, though many consider the pun to be a rather unrefined form of humor. Homophonic puns use two words that sound similar, but feature different meanings. For example, a punning bumper sticker might ask people to imagine “whirled peas” instead of “world peace.” A homographic pun relies on a single word that has multiple meanings, such as the word “bar.” Thus, if a person walks into a bar, he may be either entering a drinking establishment, or smacking into a metal rod.

Oscar Wilde was one of the notable users of puns in writing.
Oscar Wilde was one of the notable users of puns in writing.

Alliteration is an operatic use of word play that relies on an excellent understanding of vocabulary. An alliterative phrase uses two or more key words that begin with the same letter or syllable. Many tongue twisters, such as “Betty Botter bought some butter,” feature extreme examples of alliteration. This type of word play is often used in advertising and public speaking, since the repetitive nature of alliteration can serve to draw an audience's focus to a central point.

Palindromes are a fascinating form of word play that uses the construction of words to build phrases that are identical backward and forwards. Short palindromes, such as the term “race car” are fairly common, but longer palindromes are often the construction of serious word players. Perhaps the most famous palindrome of all, “a man, a plan, a canal: Panama,” is frequently used as a mnemonic device in history lessons covering the building of the Panama canal.

Rhyme is a type of word play commonly found in some forms of poetry. Rhyme uses words or phrases that have a similar sound, such as “tray” and “play.” Poetry forms are often defined partly by their use of rhyme; an Elizabethan sonnet, for instance, consists of three sets of four lines where the first line rhymes with the third, and the second with the fourth, followed by a final rhyming couplet. Rhyming is also frequently found in songs, jingles, and advertising.

While word play may simply be used for amusement, it can also be an effective teaching device. Early education often focuses on word games to teach vocabulary, word choice, memorization techniques, and contextual rules of language. Word play is also used to great effect in many forms of advertising, as it can help draw attention to a specific word, concept, or theme by making it notable through a playful device.

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