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21 Ways to Play with Words

Have you heard how time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana? Or what about American Comedian George Carlin's advice to "Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things"?

Both are examples of what is known as recreational linguistics or logology—essentially, it's playing with words for fun, and there are few things more enjoyable for writers. In Tom Stoppard's absurdist and metatheatrical tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz asks, "What are you playing at?" To which, his companion replies, "Words, words. They're all we have to go on."

To that end, here are 21 ways to play with words when your writing calls for a bit of wit.

Playing is fun, and there are few things more enjoyable for writers than playing with words.
Playing is fun, and there are few things more enjoyable for writers than playing with words. Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash.


An ambigram is a word or artistic representation that can be viewed or interpreted from a different direction, perspective, or orientation. This website shows over 40 ambigrams, including rotational ambigrams, mirror-image ambigrams, and chain style ambigrams.


To create an anagram, you'll need to rearrange the letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase. For example, the letters in "debit card" can be rearranged to read "bad credit." Iconic American singer "Jim Morrison" is an anagram for "Mr. Mojo Risin." Anagrams were important elements in Dan Brown's bestselling novel The DaVinci Code, when the main character discovers that "O, Draconian devil!" is an anagram for "Leonardo Da Vinci," "Oh, lame saint!" is an anagram for "The Mona Lisa," and "So dark the con of Man" is an anagram for "Madonna of the Rocks."


When someone bears an aptronym, it means they have a name that is considered to be amusingly appropriate to their occupation. Some examples include William Headline, who was a bureau chief for CNN, and Amy Freeze, a meteorologist. There was also Stuart Fell, who was a BBC stunt coordinator and Thomas Crapper, who manufactured Victorian toilets.


Backronyms are phrases that are constructed to spell out a certain word or acronym to create a reverse acronym. With an acronym, the phrase comes first. With a backronym, the word comes first. For example, when 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996, the call that went out was referred to as an "Amber alert." Later, the program became known as "America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response," making "Amber" a backronym.


A blend or portmanteau is created by merging the sounds and meanings of two or more words. Some common examples are "brunch" (a blend of "breakfast" and "lunch"), "chocaholic" (a blend of "chocolate" and "alcoholic"), and "glamping" ("glamour" and "camping").


A contronym is a word that evokes contradictory or reverse meanings depending on the context. Specifically, a contronym is a word with a homonym (another word with the same spelling but different meaning) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). For example, the word "screen" can have two different definitions that are opposite the other, depending on context. The first definition is to protect or conceal, as in "sunscreen" or wearing a hat to "screen" one's face from the sun. The second definition is to show or broadcast a movie or TV episode. In this definition, we might go to a theater downtown that will "screen" a new movie. The first definition insinuates hiding while the second insinuates showing, and they are therefore opposite.

Double entendre

A double entendre is the purposeful use of a word that involves a second meaning, which is usually indelicate, bawdy, or racy. For example, in the film Silence of the Lambs, the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter said, I do wish we could chat longer, but… I'm having an old friend for dinner. Bye. In this case, there are two meanings to "having a friend over for dinner"—one in which you're simply inviting a friend to join you for dinner, and the other being that your friend is your dinner (which is the meaning Dr. Lecter intended).


An eggcorn is a word or phrase that is mistakenly used for another word or phrase because it sounds similar and seems logical or plausible. Examples include "old-timers disease" instead of "Alzheimer's disease" or "lip singing" instead of "lip syncing."


An eponym is a person, place, or thing after whom or after which something is named, or believed to be named. The adjectives derived from eponym are eponymous and eponymic. For example, the Greek hero Achilles is the eponym for an Achilles' heel. One's signature is often referred to as a "John Hancock," named after John Hancock, was one of the signers of the Declarations of Independence who had a unique signature.


If your name is in ironic opposition to what or who you are, then it is an inaptronym. For example, the only member who didn't have a beard in the American rock group ZZ Top was Frank Beard. Another example would be the infamous white supremacist named Don Black or Samuel Foote, an actor who lost his leg in a horseback-riding accident.


An isogram is a logological term for a word or phrase without a repeating letter. It can also mean a word phrase in which each letter appears the same number of times. Some examples of isograms include customizable, lexicography, unforgivable, and imprudently.


A lipogram is writing a word or phrase that purposefully excludes a letter of the alphabet. For example, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" uses every letter of the alphabet except "s". A longer example is Fate of Nassan, an anonymous poem written pre-1870, in which each stanza is a lipogrammatic pangram using every letter of the alphabet except "e".

Bold Nassan quits his caravan,
A hazy mountain grot to scan;
Climbs jaggy rocks to find his way,
Doth tax his sight, but far doth stray.

Not work of man, nor sport of child
Finds Nassan on this mazy wild;
Lax grow his joints, limbs toil in vain—
Poor wight! why didst thou quit that plain?

Vainly for succour Nassan calls;
Know, Zillah, that thy Nassan falls;
But prowling wolf and fox may joy
To quarry on thy Arab boy.

Fate of Nassan


A malaprop is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance. An example is when Former Texas Governor Rick Perry described states as "lavatories of innovation and democracy" instead of "laboratories of innovation and democracy." Another example is saying "for all intensive purposes" instead of "for all intents and purposes."


A mondegreen is a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song. A common example is when Jimi Hendrix sang, "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky," it was misheard by many as "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy." Another classic example is The Ramones, singing "I wanna' be sedated," which came across sounding like "I wanna' piece of bacon."


An oxymoron is a figure of speech containing words that seem to contradict each other. It's often referred to as a contradiction in terms. Some examples are:

  • Act naturally
  • Alone together
  • Amazingly awful
  • Bittersweet
  • Clearly confused
  • Dark light
  • Deafening silence
  • Definitely maybe
  • Farewell reception
  • Growing smaller
  • Jumbo shrimp
  • Only choice
  • Open secret
  • Original copy
  • Painfully beautiful
  • Passive aggressive
  • Random order
  • Small crowd
  • Sweet sorrow
  • True myth
  • Walking dead
  • Weirdly normal


A palindrome is a word, number, phrase, or other sequence of characters that reads the same backward as forward. Some examples include: "dammit I'm mad" and "do geese see god." Another example from literature is taken from Leigh Mercer, and reads: "A Man, A Plan, A Canal – Panama!"


Pangrams are words or sentences that contain every letter of the alphabet at least once. The most common example is "A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."


A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the end of the sentence or phrase is not what's expected, causing the listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. Mostly, you'll find that it is done for humorous effect, which is why comedians use it a lot.

  • "If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong."—Attributed to Sir Winston Churchill.
  • "Behind every great man there's a woman, rolling her eyes."—Jim Carrey's character in the movie Bruce Almighty
  • "War does not determine who is right ... only who is left."—Often (and probably mistakenly) attributed to Bertrand Russell, the 20th century British philosopher and mathematician.


A pun is a form of word play that exploits multiple meanings of a term, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect.

Some example puns are:

  • Santa Claus' helpers are known as subordinate Clauses.
  • She had a photographic memory but never developed it.
  • The two pianists had a good marriage. They always were in a chord.
  • I was struggling to figure out how lightning works, but then it struck me.
  • The grammarian was very logical. He had a lot of comma sense.
  • What do you call a person rabid with wordplay? An energizer punny.
  • I've been to the dentist many times so I know the drill.


A semordnilaps is a word that makes sense when spelled backwards but takes on a different meaning. An example is Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Studios. Other examples are "desserts" and "stressed" or "live" and "evil."


A spoonerism is a play on words in which letters or syllables get swapped. An example is the famous George Carlin quote, "Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things," or the NOFX album Punk In Drublic, which is a spoonerism of the legal offense of being "drunk in public."

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