Wordplay is a fertile field for study in English. Although the following forms of humor should be used sparingly if at all, writers should be familiar with them and their possibilities.
A malapropism, the substitution of a word with a similar-sounding but incongruous word, may be uttered accidentally or, for humorous effect, may be deliberate. The name derives from that of Mrs. Malaprop, a character in an eighteenth-century play who often uttered such misstatements; one of her comments, for example, is “she’s as headstrong as an allegory,” when she meant to say “alligator.” (The word ultimately derives from the French phrase mal à propos, meaning “poorly placed.”) Numerous characters are assigned this amusing attribute; the Shakespearean character Dogberry’s name inspired an alternate label.
Spoonerisms are similar to malapropisms; the distinction is that a spoonerism is a case of metathesis, in which parts of two words are exchanged, rather than one word substituted for another. This figure of speech was named after a nineteenth-century Oxford academician who appears to have been credited with various misstatements he did not make; one of the many apocryphal examples is “a well-boiled icicle” (in lieu of “a well-oiled bicycle”).
The word for this type of wordplay, from Greek (meaning “against expectation”) but coined only a few decades ago, refers to a sentence with a humorously abrupt shift in intent, such as “I don’t belong to an organized political party — I’m a Democrat,” from twentieth-century American humorist Will Rogers, or Winston’s Churchill’s summation of a colleague, “A modest man, who has much to be modest about.”
- Tom Swifty
This name for an adverb, used in an attribution for dialogue, that punningly applies to the words spoken (for example, “‘We just struck oil!’ Tom gushed”) was inspired by the writing style in a series of children’s novels featuring the character Tom Swift, written continuously since the early twentieth century. Although no such puns appear in these stories, such examples are suggestive of the overwrought adverbs that are a distinctive feature. (Originally, such a pun was called a Tom Swiftly.)
A Wellerism, named after a Dickensian character, is a statement that includes a humorous contradiction or a quirky lapse in logic, such as “‘So I see,’ said the blind carpenter as he picked up his hammer and saw,” or a prosaic similar construction whose humor derives from a pun, as in “‘We’ll have to rehearse that,’ said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car” (which plays on the prefix re- in association with the noun hearse).