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origen  origins

Wordplay mainly refers to the creation of double meanings or ambiguity through the deliberate exploitation of homonymy or polysemy, of words, and, by extension, to non-verbal or multimodal textual elements. It can also be more broadly defined as the playful use of words, verbal wit, or in relation to punning, the usually humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound. Applied to a single word the concept would include such devices as Spoonerisms or malapropisms; it can be the defining feature of certain texts or text types, as in the case of the limerick. Certain forms of wordplay are not necessarily humorous, such as palindromesanagrams and acrostics, and are not witty per se unless the author can tie in an interesting or funny idea, connotation, occasion or form of presentation.

origen  other names

Although wordplay has gathered consensus as a blanket term for all kinds of verbal wit there are several other similar, often overlapping, terms.

Innuendo: (the making of) a remark or remarks that suggest something sexual or something unpleasant but do not refer to it directly. An innuendo involves saying something which is polite and innocent on the surface, but indirectly hints at an insult or rude comment, a dirty joke, or even social or political criticism. Innuendos are commonly used in everyday conversation as a socially acceptable way to be critical, mean, sexual, humorous, or even flirtatious. The word innuendo comes from the Latin phrase “innuere” meaning to “make a sign to” or “nod to.”

Malapropism: the intentionally or unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase especially: the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context (Merriam Webster), as in “Jesus healing those leopards”.

Pun, often used as a synonym for wordplay. Puns involve a witty combination of different words (with different meanings) with similar or identical sounds or spellings (homonyms). Their play on words also relies on a word or phrase having more than one meaning (polysemy). Puns are generally intended to be humorous, but they can have a serious purpose as well in literary works.

Spoonerism. According to Merriam Webster, it is a transposition of usually initial sounds of two or more words (as in tons of soil for sons of toil). William Archibald Spooner, a British clergyman and educator, who lived from 1844 to 1930, often had to speak in public, but he was a nervous man and his tongue frequently got tangled up. He would say things like “a blushing crow” when he meant “a crushing blow.” Spooner’s letter reversals became the stuff of legend and undoubtedly gave his listeners many a laugh. By 1900 his name had inspired the term spoonerism, which lives on to this day.

Witticism: a remark that is both clever and humorous, according to the Cambridge dictionary.



Wordplay, or punning, refers to textual items that deliberately use (in production or reception, or both) linguistic phenomena such as homonymy, polysemy, and other formal coincidences of language to create double meaning, often with an important humorous component. Wordplay requires metalinguistic awareness and a sense of the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified. There is linguistic observation, in noticing lexical and morphological coincidences, and there is often a playfulness in presenting casual coincidences as causal relationships. Because wordplay is rooted in the specific forms of a given language (its morphology and its lexical patterns) it is difficult to reproduce in other languages which have different sets of signifier/signified relationships, and any equivalence is indeed sheer coincidence. The idea of playing with words can extend to many figures of speech used in pursuit of forms of expression that are new, creative, fun, striking, innovative, etc. such as acrostics, metaphors, neologisms, alliterations, allegories, and paradoxes. They help to produce new associations and metalinguistic awareness and encourage multiple interpretations. Ambiguity and nonunivocal textual meanings, including hermeneutics, constitute a focus of translational thinking; however, punning has been considered a minor topic for two main reasons: a lack of interest for a device often seen as marginal and inconsequential, and the impression that the task is, too often, impossible. The most prominent scholar to study wordplay translation is Delabastita (1993, 1994, 1996, 1997), attempting, as he does, to propose answers to these and other issues. He studies wordplay translation in relation to canonical literature as represented by Shakespeare, bringing respect and appreciation for punning. Furthermore, he develops the idea of translatability, proposing that it might be a question of degrees of difficulty in finding a solution to each problem posed by wordplay. He proposes a typology of solutions as the result of his rich theoretical work within descriptivism. The topic of wordplay translation is very much alive today due to the proliferation of the device and related research in media translation, advertising, and social networks.


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autor Patrick Zabalbeascoa Terran
fecha de publicación 2022
referencia (cómo citar) Zabalbeascoa Terran, Patrick. 2022. "Wordplay" @ ENTI (Encyclopedia of Translation & Interpreting). AIETI.
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