Word Play


Language is a tool, and it has a serious purpose - communication. It is sometimes said that language is what lifts us above the rest of the animal kingdom, but all animals communicate. In a variety of yelps, squeaks, whistles and grunts we are all at it; and the "lower" animals, lacking vocalisation, communicate with body language, pheromones, posturing and other subtle signals. The complexity of ideas we can communicate with words is a human speciality; and yet, however sophisticated or esoteric our message, we rely on the tool of language to get it across. From professors of nuclear physics to stand-up comedians, all are engaged in the same exercise - utilising language to communicate.

Wordplay is slightly different. Puns, palindromes, anagrams, riddles, and rhyme all have one thing in common - the form and structure of the language are as important as the idea being communicated. This taking apart of language and using it against itself intrigues at many different levels, from the simplicity of the pun to the sophistication of the acrostic and the complexity of the cryptic crossword clue. Over the coming weeks we will have a look in more detail at particular forms of wordplay. For now, what do we mean by wordplay and what distinguishes it?

What is the relationship between a pun and a poem? Why do both differ from a palindrome or an anagram? Puns and poetry - at least, the traditional, rhymed sort - use words in their entirety, words that sound similar but have different meanings. A good pun is based on homophones whose meanings are ludicrously different in the context of the pun; poets and songwriters are looking for the homophone that conveys their idea most closely.

Forms of wordplay such as palindromes, anagrams and acrostics use the letters, the building blocks of words and language, in a much more disciplined way. A perfect palindrome, such as "Able was I ere I saw Elba" reverses both in terms of its letters and its words; more usually, as long as the letters reverse, word formation and punctuation are allowed to be less than perfect, as in "A man, a plan, a canal - Panama". Anagrams must contain ALL the letters of the original, and NO OTHERS. Puns and rhymes can be "near enough"; you can't get away with, "Well, it's almost an anagram" or "practically a palindrome".

And wasn't that alarmingly alliterative? What simple pleasure we derive from alliteration! The lining up of a sequence of words with similar beginnings is, in my experience, one of the earliest forms of wordplay we learn to enjoy. I remember being delighted at a very early age by "Round the rugged rocks the ragged rascals ran" (not least because I was one of those children who have trouble with an "R" and could reduce my family to hysterics with my attempts to recite it).

Acrostics, riddles, oxymoron, malapropisms, rhyme and metre, zeugma, spoonerisms - the list of ways in which we twist our language for our own satisfaction is endless. None serve any useful purpose; all are undertaken for pure pleasure. Puzzles are another manifestation of the same impulse, so much so that it is hard to consider wordplay without considering puzzles and vice versa (a pornographic poet?).

Wordplay is an enjoyment of language for its own sake; the use of language, not as a tool, but as a toy. Language becomes a thing to be manipulated, played with, reformed and redefined. Language is divorced from its primary purpose as a means of communication; and it is perhaps this that separates us from the yelpers, squeakers, whistlers and grunters.

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