An Introduction to Paronomasia

Paronomasia is a poetic device that expresses similarity of sound of various words. It is a kind of punOpens in new window or wordplay that may be described as the deliberate choice of two (or more) words which resemble one another in their roots or consonantal soundsOpens in new window but differ in meaning.

The ancient rhetorical manual Rhetorica ad HerenniumOpens in new window defines paronomasia as

  • ‘The figure in which, by means of a modification of sound, or change of letters, a close resemblance to a given verb or noun is produced so that similar words express dissimilar things (meanings).'

By its specific collocation of words within the triad of sound, spelling, and meaning, paronomasia could be seen as a punning which manifests in the typology of six wordplays:

  1. Wordplay featuring HomophonesOpens in new window: which entails homophonic (same sound or pronunciation), metagraphic (divergent form of spelling); as well as, metasemic (divergent meaning); for example, “bare” and “bear”; “meat” and “meet”.
  2. Wordplay featuring HomographsOpens in new window: this includes homographic, metaphonic, and metasemic; for example, “refuse”: [ refuse (\ri-ˈfyüz\)] and[ refuse (\ˈre-ˌfyüz\)].
  3. Wordplay featuring Homosemy or Synonym: which includes homosemic, metaphonic, and metagraphic; for example, “big” — “great”; “my old lord of the castle” — “Sir John Oldcastle” (Shakespeare).
  4. Wordplay featuring Heterographs: which entails, homophonic, homosemic, and heterographic; for example, <light> — <lite>; French: <gauche> — <gôche>, German: <Telephon> — <Telefon> (before the spelling-reform in 1999).
  5. Wordplay featuring HomonymsOpens in new window: which entails homophonic, homographic, and metasemic; for example, English “to lie” (i.e., to be prostrate) — “to lie” (i.e., to tell an untruth); German “Schein” (i.e., light) — “Schein” (i.e., semblance)
  6. Wordplay featuring MetaphonesOpens in new window: which includes homosemic, homographic, and metaphonic; for example, the two kinds of pronunciation of the name of the poet John Donne.
Important Hint! 

Paronomasia differs from rhyme, in as much as the words which constitute it do not necessarily stand at the end of parallelisms or strophes, but may be placed together in any part of a sentence, and are frequent in prose as well as in poetry. The purpose of this literary-stylistic device is to shape an utterance in an elegant fashion, rendering it pleasant to the ear of the audience (reader/listener); to arouse the audience’s interest and to render the significance of the utterance more profound.

Further Readings:
Brown, J. (“Eight Types of Pun”), Proceedings of Modern Language Association, 71 (1956), pp. 14 – 26;
Hoskins, John. Directions for Speech and Style, edtd. By Hoyt H. Hudson. Princeton, 1935;
Mahood, M. Shkespeare’s Wordplay. London, 1979;
Plett, Heinrich F. Systematische Rhetorik. Munich, 2000;
George Puttenham. (“prosonomasia,” “the nickname”) (1589) p. 212.