Words and the fun we have with them

Fun with Words

Words aren’t always meant to be taken seriously. People have found ways to also play with them. ‘A play on words’, is a phrase one recognises readily, having heard it often. The pun, whose other name is ‘paronomasia’, has been a prime candidate, lending itself to heaps of linguistic tomfoolery. The pun, of course, being word play that suggests one or more meanings, or a similar sounding word.

A classic example is in a quote by the prolific English writer of the 20th century, Hilaire Belloc, who wrote: “When I am dead, I hope it might be said: His sins were scarlet but his books were read.”

Punning on words hasn’t ceased apparently. At the Pun Championships in the United Kingdom in 2014, one of the witticisms uttered was: “My computer’s got a Miley virus. It stopped twerking.” Just to show how differently conceived this form of word play was, we have the great Alfred Hitchcock proclaiming, “Puns are the highest form of literature.” Comedians, however, try to steer away from the pun, several seeing it as the lowest form of wit.

While the pun is more often a spoken or oral form of playing on words, a written variety would be the palindrome. Even as children, we delighted in spotting words like ‘tat, mam, madam,’ and pointing them out with delight to classmates. “Look! It spells the same backward.”

One of our comics in Australia, Hannah Gadsby, whose name Hannah as one can see is a palindrome, comments humorously on how she happens to be born in a palindromic family, with her mum, dad, sis and brothers Bob and Kayak. As we grew and discovered further adventures with words, we found that palindromes were of course not relegated to tiny words, not even ‘Malayalam’, which, back then, we thought was a huge palindrome. We found that there were entire sentences that could be spelled backward and forward. One of them was often elicited via a question: ‘How did Adam introduce himself to Eve?’ The answer being: ‘Madam I’m Adam’. It impressed the socks off us. Then someone came up with, ‘A Toyota’s a Toyota’. And in that fashion the bar got raised, I reckon. ‘A nut for a jar of tuna’ came along. Not to be outdone, someone fashioned: ‘A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal: Panama!’ That’s it, I remember thinking. That’s the zenith in the palindrome world. Somebody’s going to have to play real hard with the letters to come up with something better than that, and meaningful at the same time. And you know what? Someone did: ‘Are we not pure? No, sir! Panama’s moody Noriega brags. It is garbage! Irony dooms a man; a prisoner up to new era.’ I agree, the last four words come across as a tad grammatically stilted, but one gets the drift. Still, an 85-word palindrome! A quantum leap in progress, after our childhood days of spotting ‘mum’ and ‘dad’.

All of which brings me to yet another form of word play: The anagram. It is the anagram that got me writing the content for this column in the first place. And it’s the anagram that young Thomas is concerned with. Thomas’s twin, Troy, bought him a book recently titled Anatomy (for a muscle builder). Thomas is the one that works out at the gym diligently and this book is a birthday present from his brother. The twins are both nephews of my prankster friend, Barney. This day, however, on his way to the gym, Thomas is not reading the book for detail. He is, instead, composing anagrams from ‘Anatomy’ on a piece of paper. “Just having fun with the words,” he says, showing me the slip of paper. In this way, I discover that Anatomy can be turned into ‘A Man Toy’, ‘A Toy Man’ or ‘Any Atom’.

In a day when words tend to easily outrage, it’s nice to see someone having fun with them.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.