Rows of cast steel

Rows of cast steel

In Brief

Figure of speech. The riddle that Lenehan tells in Aeolus, "What opera is like a railwayline?," involves a simple pun. But in this chapter of rhetorical figures even that familiar device has a fancy name: paronomasia, or words that sound alike but have different meanings.

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Paronomasia (PAR-uh-no-MAH-see-uh, PAIR-uh-no-MAY-zhuh, or similar, from Greek para- = beside, alongside + onomazein = to name) is finding two or more "names beside" each other in one string of sounds. The author of the Ad Herennium observes that the change of meaning in such figures is brought about through various kinds of metaplasm––contracting, expanding, adding, omitting, lengthening, shortening, transposing, or changing letters––and he offers many Latin examples. Henry Peacham makes the same point: "Paranomasia is a figure which declineth into a contrarie by a likelihood of letters, either added, changed, or taken away." Gideon Burton ( offers a pithy example: "A pun is its own reword." Lenehan's joke, published in The Boy's Handy Book of Sports, Pastimes, Games and Amusements (1863) and often repeated thereafter, obeys this law: in two homonymous alterations of letters it changes "rose" to "rows" and "Castile" to "cast steel."

Puns like this elicit groans for their primitive sense of humor, and many serious writers have warned against their use. Peacham goes on to say that "This figure ought to be sparingly used, and especially in grave and weightie causes, both in the respect of the light and illuding forme, and also forasmuch as it seemeth not to be found without meditation and affected labor. As the use ought to be rare, so the allusion ought not to be tumbled out at adventure. Also heede ought to be taken of whom it is used, and against whom it is applied." But some exceedingly bright speakers have ignored this sage advice: "Immanuel doesn't pun, he Kant" (Oscar Wilde); "Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends" (Tom Waits, according to Richard Nordquist at; "Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe" (law firm of The Three Stooges).

Shakespeare employs puns not only in scenes of merriment but also in circumstances of grave importance. For every Mercutio who jokes that "the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon" (RJ 2.4.112-13) there is a Desdemona who protests, "I cannot say 'whore'. / It does abhor me now I speak the word" (Oth 4.2.161-62). More even than in the plays, double, triple, and quadruple meanings spring up everywhere in his sonnets, starting with the first lines of the first poem: "From fairest creatures we desire increase" means primarily that we want to see beautiful people have children, but it could also mean that they increase desire in us; "But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes" means that you are engaged to marry yourself and also that you have shrunk the circle of your gaze to your own face. The tens of thousands of such figures in the Bard's works led the sober Samuel Johnson to complain in his Preface to Shakespeare about the man's fondness for the "quibble," or pun:

A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

Joyce was cut from the same cloth. Plays on words can be subtle in Ulysses, Lenehan's lame pun and Bloom's hilarious "fancy bread" in Eumaeus notwithstanding. In Finnegans Wake, though, the metaplasmic riot of meanings (yes, said Joyce, they're trivial––and also quadrivial) so pervades the fabric of the text that Doctor Johnson would have thought the world irretrievably lost in this book. The Wake makes David Collard wonder (while disclaiming diagnostic intentions) about the relevance of two neurological anomalies discovered in 1929. Foerster's syndrome is named after Ottfrid Foerster, who was performing brain surgery when "the patient, who was conscious, suddenly erupted into a fluent and relentless stream of puns, all of them related (unsurprisingly) to thoughts of knives and butchery" (Multiple Joyce, 128). Witzelsucht, first reported by Dr. A. A. Brill, is defined in a medical dictionary as "a mental condition characteristic of frontal lesions and marked by the making of poor jokes and which the patient himself is intensely amused" (129). When Joyce worked on the Wake at night, Nora, abed in the next room, would hear him convulsed in laughter.

John Hunt 2023
Punch cartoon of 25 February 1914. Source: Wikimedia Commons.