In the dictionary, paronomasia carries the meaning of a word play or pun. Paronomasia is pronounced pah-rah-no-MAH-zhyuh. Words with nom in them usually have to do with naming, such as nominate (to name someone for something, such as for president) or nominal (meaning in name only).
People—that is, writers—often like to tinker with or play with names. Some of these can prove to be helpful or humorous. They can be like built-in-riddles. They may make us chuckle sometimes, such as when I’ve had in the past M.D.s named Dr. Pillenger or Dr. Payne.
Creative writers in particular who seem to enjoy tinkering with punny words are cartoonists. I believe it was Mr. Livwright who headed up the newspaper organization where the cartoon character Brenda Starr worked. One of my all-time favorite puns caught me off-guard in the comic page in (I think) the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. This character was a ballerina named (hold on!) Anya Toze.
Humorists or comedians may use such puns to get a laugh. For instance, weekly on radio’s Car Talk, the guys known as Click and Clack mention a character named (forgive me if I’ve misspelled it) Heywood Jubuzzoff.
Some names are just right for puns. Almost anyone with the first name of Shirley is easily adapted to whatever you might choose for a last name. You would understand the principal feature of a character if she had the name Shirley Yacky.
The novelist Charles Dickens was a master at such name-play. Characters like Rogue Riderhood, or the Murdstones make wonderful villains with unmissable names. My favorite is a mean schoolmaster with a name designed to make readers laugh: Wackford Squeers.
Dickens sported a female character in one book named Bella Wilfer. Now it helps to enjoy many such characters if you learned a smattering of Latin or Greek somewhere along the way. Bellum (as in the word antebellum) has to do with war, and Miss Wilfer proves to be quite willful. Also, bella can signify beautiful in Italian, so Bella is pretty but not necessarily an easy catch.
Life certainly can provide a chuckle just at present when the University of Memphis football team sports a running back whose last name is Gainwell—and, sure enough, he does just that!
Novelist Thomas Hardy set forth a character named Gabriel Oak who must have had character, for he had an archangel’s name for his first name and a symbolically sturdy name for the second one.
If you were a linguist, you can frequently pick up puns that other readers are apt to miss. For example, in the Bible’s Book of Ruth, Naomi had two sons whose names sort of rhyme in their last syllables—Mahlon and Chilion (Ruth 1: 2). A Hebraist (or scholar of the Hebrew language) might tell you that these two names mean something like “Weakly” or “Wimpy” and “Whiney.” (No wonder they both died at early ages!)
Another name borrowed from the Bible is featured in what many people consider to be America’s greatest novel—Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It kicks off with the words “Call me Ishmael.” In the biblical narrative, Ishmael has a dose of hard times (see Genesis 16: 11-12 and chapter 21). Melville’s Ishmael, however, wanders more on the great waters whereas the Bible’s Ismael hangs out in the bleak wilderness badlands (see Gen. 21: 20-21).
You might also say that the Bible supplies you with the first DVD. The reason I can make that punny remark is that the Book of Ruth ends with the Hebrew letters corresponding to the English consonants DVD. This is the shorthand version of Israel’s greatest governor, King DaViD. DVD is also the very last word in the Hebrew version of the Bible’s Book of Ruth.
There are times, however, when the tone of a given situation seems inappropriate to a play with words. Some folks thought this when the TV show MASH made humor integral to a background of war.
Ordinarily, you would think that a funeral eulogy might be out of sync with a speaker making extensive use of puns. Nevertheless, that is just what the biblical prophet Micah does when he pronounces the funeral oration of his nation. A majority of first-time readers would be unlikely to pick up on this vibe because they would be non-readers of the Hebrew language. However, a super scholar named James Moffatt sought to capture the flavor behind these word-plays in Micah 1: 10-16. Moffatt took the sound of the selected Hebrew names of certain Hebrew towns and attempted to match them in translation to sound-alike sentiments.
Note these sounds below in selections from Micah 1: 10-14 in Moffatt’s version of the Bible.
Weep tears at Teartown . . .
grovel in the dust at Dustown . . .
fare forth stripped, O Fairtown. . .
to horse and drive away, O Horsetown. . .
And Israel’s kings are ever balked at Balktown . . . .
Nothing like a little learning (not “a dangerous thing”) for seniors, huh? While not all names can be purified, isn’t it nicer when we can both laugh and learn simultaneously?
Jim Townsend, Ph.D., is a retired Bible editor, pastor, and author of 16 books. To contact him, visit www.drjimdevotionals.com.