Exploring the Punning Effects of Pun

“Farmer Bill Dies in House”

— Ambiguous Headline

When one word is uttered or written in the discourse, an additional meaning(s) may also be invoked and remain active for reasons specific to the context. Thus, in the expression “Farmer Bill Dies in House”, the context enables the reader or listener to process “Farmer Bill” in two different meanings — a proper nounOpens in new window denoting “the name of an individual” as well as “Farmers’ legislative bill”.

Likewise, “House”, the last word of the sentence, has in its connotation a doubling in meaning, consequent upon the context of “Farmer Bill” — it can mean “a house,” in the context of a living home (sheltering Farmer Bill), that is, if “Farmer Bill” is taken to be the name identified with an individual; alternatively, if the expression meant “Farmer Bill” to be “a legislative bill,” “House” can mean “the house,” as in the context of a legislative body of a parliament presiding over proposal of the Farmer Bill.

The middle word, which is the verb “Dies” is also a pun, with two meanings dependent on the context of the expression. Here, the verb “Dies”, if the contextual meaning of Farmer Bill is a proper noun or the names for an individual, “Dies” would be taken literally to mean Farmer Bill (as a person) has died, or ceased to exist.

But if in the context of “Farmer Bill” as a legislative bill, the verb “Dies” would mean the deliberation to pass the Farmer Bill into law had met a dead end, or failed completely.

What then is Pun?

A pun is often defined as a play on word with different possible meanings; or a communicative strategyOpens in new window where a word has at least two or more meanings.

Considering the range of forms inherent in the dynamics of puns, this definition in its applicability is quite limited. Hence, the need to present the following definition.

In a certain extent, overall definitions that encompasses the complexity and dynamics of puns consist in the following:

A pun is a family of forms that includes:

A single word that is contextually relevant in at least two ways.

A repeated word that is contextually relevant in at least two ways.

A word that replaces a phonetically similar wordOpens in new window or word clusterOpens in new window.

A word that replaces a phonetically similar word within a well-known phrase, or

A word that replaces a phonetically similar cluster of syllablesOpens in new window within a word.

Basically, all puns that are formed on the unit of the word, rely on a doubling of contextual relevance, and create a humorous, provocative, or poignant effect.

Typically, puns involve one word and more than one meaning. In certain scenarios of normal discourse processing, deciding between two (or more) alternate meanings of a word is necessary – it is a crucial advancement for interlocutors to eliminate ambiguous semanticsOpens in new window or unintended meanings.

A punning effect is only a pun when the audience (reader or listener) recognizes that two different meanings or references for the word each fit the context of its use. Some persons might miss the double meaning altogether.

In some examples, though, the pun word incites two closely related meanings. Consider this comment made about a Swiss friend who refuses to take sides in a personal argument:

“As you’d expect, he’s neutral.”

What makes this a pun is not any strong semantic distance in the meanings of “neutral” when applied to a personal dispute or a war, but the fact that the word “neutral” is relevant to this context in two ways: “neutral” applies to the friend’s refusal to pick sides in the current dispute, and “neutral” is salient and fitting because of his Swiss nationality (dependent, of course, on the hearer’s familiarity with that country and its history of neutrality in war) — Jennifer Riddle Harding, Similes, Puns and Counterfactuals in Literary Narrative: Visible Figures

Important Hint! 

The proposition that meanings must be semantically different for something to count as a pun does not always hold true. Context plays a role by sometimes creating a doubling or relevance even when there is not a strong semantic distance in meanings.

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