LANGUAGE - A Nurturing Potential series - Part V

Having Fun With Words - or have you got the right message?

Contributed by Joe Sinclair

Readers will certainly be familiar with some of the more common forms of linguistic puzzles or mistakes, but I hope that we will succeed here in bringing some new examples to your attention, or a different way of relating to some "old friends".   We also provide links to further examples on other sites.


I doubt if any of you have failed to be amused, for instance, by some of the more outrageous of the slips of the tongue attributed (often apocryphally) to Dr. Spooner, of which, perhaps, “Three cheers for our queer dean” is the most frequently quoted.   Equally familiar is the conversion of "A well-oiled bicycle" into "A well-boiled icicle".  For more information and samples click on:


And we must all have heard, in our school days, of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop (The Rivals) and her malapropisms.  For instance, she describes someone as "the pineapple of perfection".  Another example that pleases me (not from the play): “He did it of his own fruition.”

For some superb humour - but only if Charles Schulz and his Peanuts cartoon strip appeal to you - take a look at this site: [Example: Ten milligrams equals one centigram; ten decigrams equals one gram; ten grams equals one grampa.] 


Sharing with sarcasm the reputation for being the lowest form of wit; greeted habitually with more groans than laughs, puns are, nevertheless, the earliest form of wordplay embraced by children.  The ingenuous style of humour they portray remains typical of puns regardless of the age of the raconteur and may be one reason for the groans that greet them.  Or it may be that the audience is simply deploring the fact that they were "beaten to the punch".  As the acerbic actor/musician, the late Oscar Levant, put it: "A pun is the lowest form of humour - if you didn't think of it first".  Perhaps we need to give our Child more of an airing and be less groan up.

Puns were the mainstay of the comedians who used to keep audiences entertained between acts in the old time Music Hall.  "I say, I say, I say," was the habitual introduction to a pun.  Just to ensure that the audience braced themselves for the laugh to follow. (No wonder "vaudeville is dead".)  "I say, I say, I say . . .  My missus went to the West Indies."  "Jamaica?"  "No, she went of her own free will."

But puns pre-date Music Hall by many centuries and there is a rich tradition of such fun with words in English literature.  Chaucer was fond of occasional pieces of word play; and Shakespeare couldn't resist them.  Charles Lamb, a notorious punster, considered the worst puns to be the best puns: "It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect." But the English poet who is probably most renowned for the use of puns, and the clever way in which he introduced them appropriately into his verses, was Thomas Hood.

Ben Battle was a soldier bold

And used to war's alarms

But a cannonball took off his legs;

So he laid down his arms.

        - and -

For here I leave my second leg

And the Forty-second foot.

        - and -

His death, which happened in his berth,

At forty-odd befell:

They went and told the sexton, and

The sexton tolled the bell.

Here are some clever examples - some are genuine, some undoubtedly apocryphal, but I don't know which is which.  General Napier is alleged to have sent a one-word message after capturing the Indian province of Sind in 1843: "Peccavi" (Latin for I have sinned).  The aforementioned Thomas Hood is held to have responded, when an undertaker offered his services: "He is trying to urn a lively Hood."  Hogarth (may have) sent out a dinner invitation which pictured a knife, a fork, and a pie, with three Greek letters: eta, beta, pi. 

If you think you can bear the agony, take a look at 


Computer spell checkers have elevated these to a new art form.  Unless we “manually” check the corrections of the spell checker, we could end up with some very strange and potentially embarrassing substitutions.   For example “I suggest we give him the monjey,” (the last word a typing error for money), could end up as “I suggest we give him the monkey.”   Or “the doctor felt the man’s purse and said nothing could be done for him..”  An oft-repeated piece of verse by that most prolific of poets – Anon – provides an excellent example;   

Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh

As soon as a mist ache is maid
it nose bee for two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.



Anagrams can provide a constant source of amusement and entertainment.  CAT and ACT can be the basis for a game played with children at a very early age.  Dr. Seuss discovered the fun that children get from such playing with words, to his own financial gain, and to his millions of young readers’ eternal pleasure. 

As adults we are able to derive similar amusement from some awesomely appropriate rearrangement of phrases: A shoplifter converts to has to pilferEleven plus two absurdly but logically can be changed to twelve plus one .  

Some classic examples may be found at and, if you want to create your own anagrams, you can do so at

ALLITERATION (and tongue twisters)

Alliteration is the repetition of initial or beginning consonant sounds, as in the phrase "strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far."[1] This technique is used most frequently in verse where it adds both to the rhythm of a poem and to its mood.   It is not to be confused with assonance which is the repetition of vowel sounds in stressed syllables to achieve partial rhyme, as in the phrase "brave ladies live not in vain".

Some excellent examples of alliteration in verse may be seen in Michael Mallows' poem on our Verse page (see footnote), while for a more classical example you might seek Alaric Alexander Watts's poem The Siege of Belgrade, where every line alliteratively goes through the alphabet.  Thus:

An Austrian army awfully arrayed

Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade

(and so on, including the X's and Z's).

Alliterative statements are commonly referred to as tongue twisters, of which the two most frequently used by children are "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper" and "She sells seashells by the sea shore."  But tongue twisters are another form of word game that encourages vast output through the medium of the Internet.  A rather amusing one will serve as an example:

Mr. See owned a saw.
And Mr. Soar owned a seesaw.
Now, See's saw sawed Soar's seesaw
Before Soar saw See,
Which made Soar sore.
Had Soar seen See's saw
Before See sawed Soar's seesaw,
See's saw would not have sawed
Soar's seesaw.
So See's saw sawed Soar's seesaw.
But it was sad to see Soar so sore
just because See's saw sawed
Soar's seesaw

And if your appetite for them is not yet jaded, try: 


Then there are palindromes.  In their most simple form these are words that read the same backwards and forwards.  NUN, EYE, MADAM, RADAR, RACECAR.  The fun comes from expanding the simple words into phrases or sentences.  An old favourite is MADAM I’M ADAM.  There are people who apparently spend their lives (or at least all their spare time) in inventing palindromes for the simple pleasure of contributing them to internet language forums.  If you are Finnish, however, you do not need to go to such lengths; the Finnish word SOLUTOMAATTIMITTAAMOTULOS, means “the result from a measurement laboratory for tomatoes”.  I somehow doubt that it has ever been used seriously in Finland.    

Check out more palindromes at


A pangram is a series of words that contains all the letters of the alphabet.  Without fear of contradiction, I would suggest that The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog is the most widely known of such devices, and it is one that has traditionally been associated with QWERTY keyboard touch-typing learners – from well before the term QWERTY keyboard came into general usage.  

Much of the fun associated with pangrams derives from attempts to produce the shortest possible meaningful sentences using all the letters of the alphabet.  To save you the trouble of counting, I will tell you that the example cited above contains 33 letters.  Using a mere 31 letters will produce Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz.  There are, in fact, examples that comprise only the 26 letters of the alphabet, but I personally find them too contrived.  My personal preference amongst these is for the somewhat ribald TV quiz drag nymphs blow JFK cox.  Increasing the number of letters used by a mere three letters, however, produces the much more intelligible Quick zephyrs blow, vexing daft Jim.    

Further examples of pangrams may be found at


The figure of speech known as an oxymoron is less obviously amusing than the Spoonerisms, Malapropisms and Pangrams, but is a much more subtle and, in some respects, more satisfying device for having fun with words.  An oxymoron is the conjunction of two contradictory words into a single phrase.  Examples include deafening silence, unbiased opinion, clearly confused.  There is scope here for much subtlety and cleverness, as is apparent in: Microsoft Works, military intelligence, genuine imitation, and Hell’s Angels.

Conceivably the definitive oxymoron list is at


A mnemonic is a linguistic device which acts as an aid to memory.  There are various forms of these devices one of which is a rhyme as in this device to recall the length of each month: 

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one
Excepting February alone:
Which has but twenty-eight I fear,
Yet twenty-nine in each leap year.

Another rhyming mnemonic enables one to recall "pi" to several decimal places:

Sir, I bear a rhyme excelling
In mystic verse
And magic spelling . . . 

The number of letters in each word corresponds to the number of digits; the comma replaces the decimal point.  Thus: 3.14159265358.  The verse actually continues to 31 decimal places!

Another device is to use the initial letters of a simple phrase to recall the words they replace.  For example, to recall the order in which the nine planets of our solar system are situated (in distance from the sun), 

My Very Easy Method: Just Set Up Nine Planets

corresponds to

Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

And to recall the colours of the rainbow, in similar fashion, Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.  While most piano students, I would suggest, have learned that Every Good Boy Deserves Favour . . . and Good Boys Deserve Favour Always to recall the notes of the piano keys over which the right hand and left hand fingers should be poised.


The French call it l’esprit d’escalier, literally “staircase wit”.  It’s what you think of saying when it’s too late to say it – literally - as you are walking down the staircase.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced it sometime.  “Now why didn’t I say . . . ?” 

I recall it being defined as “Repartee: or what a person thinks of saying after he becomes a departee.” 

Of course, there may be others who leave with the thought: “God!  Did I really say that?”,  and the regret that they had not swallowed their words.  (Perhaps we could call it escalator wit!)

A notable example of this was Dan Quayle (Dan who??!) who was prone to making statements such as: “If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure.” 

Now that was definitely the remark of a departee. 


"Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker".  If you - as am I - are a fan of Ogden Nash, you will appreciate this link to a website that claims to be the largest online collection of his verse.  If Ogden Nash is - unbelievably - unknown to you . . . enjoy!

FOOTNOTE (Thanks, Michael!)

[Michael Mallows was asked to provide a contribution to the series.  When it arrived, I felt it to be too rich a confection to hide in this section . . . so it has been removed to the Verse page where you can feast your eyes and thoughts on the clever use of alliteration and other funny and punny word games that Michael has produced in poetic form -]

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[1] From Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton.