10 Types of Wordplay

By Mark Nichol

Humorous works of fiction are easily enlivened when the author resorts to one or more of the following categories of playing with prose:

1. Acronyms: An acronym is an abbreviation consisting of a string of initial letters pronounced as a word. Fictional examples, such as SPECTRE (for “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion”), from the James Bond novels and films, and VILE (for “Villains’ International League of Evil”), from the Carmen Sandiego computer-game series, can be serious or humorous depending on formation and intent.

2. Anagrams: An anagram is simply a word with its letters scrambled in a new order. Many humorous phrases have been derived by scrambling expressions or people’s names, such as forming “I am a weakish speller” from “William Shakespeare.” (Anagram generators can be found on the Internet.)

3. Chronograms: A chronogram is a phrase in which constituent letters also express a number, as in “My Day Closed Is In Immortality,” an epitaph for England’s Queen Elizabeth I in which the first letter of each word corresponds to a Roman numeral; the numerical sequence, MDCIII, is translated as 1603, the date of her death. A weak variant is a habit of filmmakers (or, more accurately, film marketers) of replacing one or more letters in a movie title with a number vaguely resembling the letter or otherwise related, as in the title of the 1995 crime thriller Seven, represented on posters as Se7en.

4. Initialisms: Initialisms are distinguished from acronyms by the fact that the constituent letters are pronounced individually, rather than sequentially sounded as if they were a single word. Many popular social-networking terms such as LOL (“laugh out loud”) and ROTFL (“roll on the floor laughing”) are initialisms; so is TEOTWAWKI (“the end of the world as we know it”).

5. Lipograms: A lipogram is a composition deliberately consisting of words lacking a letter of the alphabet. Such a work is more or less easily accomplished depending on the letter selected for omission; many writers, astonishingly, have written novels produced without recourse to use of a common letter such as e or t.

6. Malapropisms: This type of wordplay refers to misuse of one word for another by those too ignorant to recognize the error. It’s named after Mrs. Malaprop, a character in an eighteenth-century play who is notorious for such unwitting utterances, as exemplified by the character’s line “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.” Shakespeare also employed such humor, most notably in lines by the character Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing such as “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.”

7. Mondegreens: Misunderstood song lyrics are often referred to as mondegreens; the term itself is based on a mishearing of the phrase “laid him on the green.” A more recent example is “Excuse me while I kiss this guy,” rather than “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” from the Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze.”

8. Onomatopoeias: Onomatopoeias (the term is from the Greek words for “make” and “name”) are words that imitate sounds, such as splash or bump. A notable example of an onomatopoeic proper name is that of the Houyhnhnms, the sentient, civilized horses from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

9. Portmanteaus: Portmanteaus, words creating by combining two words and their meanings into one, were named and popularized by Lewis Carroll. He coined several, such as slithy (from lithe and slimy); more recent examples include brunch and smog. (Carroll named the form of wordplay after a word for a suitcase with two separate compartments.)

10. Spoonerisms: The term for expressions in which initial letters, or sometimes entire syllables or words, are transposed is based on the name of a British clergyman supposedly prone to such utterances, though many attributed to him were only inspired by him. Among them is “a well-boiled icicle” for “a well-oiled bicycle”; John Lennon is credited with coining a variation on “Time heals all wounds”: “Time wounds all heels.”

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7 Responses to “10 Types of Wordplay”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Great list here, I haven’t heard the technical names for these but I knew them pretty well when I read the definitions. Thanks for sharing this on a dreary Monday (at least in my part of the world)!

  • Cinzia

    Very nice!

    Portmanteaus is also known as “blending” in linguistics.

  • Andre Bourque

    I was hoping to find the word that describes a brand name that becomes iconic for the item. Examples include Q-tip for cotton swab, Vaseline for petroleum jelly and Scotch tape for well, scotch tape! There must be a name that describes this type of word but I have for years now been unable to find it.

    Any ideas?

  • Cinzia

    Hello Andre!

    The correct definition for such names is eponym, and specifically product eponyms! I hope this helps! 😉

  • Chihuahua0

    Nice list! I’m adding this to my round-up.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Great list, Mark, and some delicious food for thought. Is there a term combining the techniques of initialisms and chronograms? Specifically, I thinking of a clue I used in a short story in which a phrase was given (as in the “My Day Closed Is In Immortality” above) but rather than creating a Roman number the capitalized letters formed an actual sentence. It’s an old ‘secret code’ trick but is there a specific term for it beyond that?

  • Mark Nichol

    Stephen:

    I don’t know what the code you describe is called, but it reminds me of the technique of hiding a message in poetry or prose formed from the first letter of each line or stanza of a poem, or the first letter of each paragraph in a story. I’m sure there are plenty of websites on which such strategies are described and named.

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