The American poet Theodore Roethke wrote of a windstorm that:
The element of air was out of hand.
The rush of wind ripped off the tender leaves
And flung them in confusion on the land.
(from the poem Interlude)
Poets often play so hard with words that they seem to fling them in confusion on the page until an unexpected order is suddenly revealed.
In Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem we have this delicious verbal irony (another form of wordplay) in its opening lines:
Because I could not stop for death —
He kindly stopped for me —
Lewis Carroll’s poem For Alice, which he placed at the end of Through the Looking Glass, has a line for each of the letters of the name Alice Pleasance Liddell. This is how it starts:
A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—
Not such a simple tale, it’s actually a wondrously well-crafted acrostic. I just posted a far less sophisticated acrostic poem on Instagram not because I’m a poet—I’m definitely not—but because it tickled my fancy to try to write one:
Snow makes everything
New again if
Only for a
Have you tried your hand at acrostic poetry? If not, do so at once because:
Now is the time
Victorian writer Samuel Butler wrote a famous Utopian novel titled Erewhon, which is a nearly perfect anadrome (reverse spelling) of nowhere. (It’s not unreasonable to keep the wh digraph as is because it functions to represent a single sound just like individual letters do.) Butler was a serious writer but also irreverently playful with his words. Take this, one of his more famous quotes: “All progress is based upon a universal innate desire on the part of every organism to live beyond its income.” At once tongue in cheek and deeply insightful, it suggests a restlessly playful mind at work.
The title of an even earlier utopian work uses wordplay in the form of double entendre. Sir Thomas More’s 1516 novel, Utopia, references the ancient Greek word for nowhere, which happens to be very similar to the Greek word Eutopia or ‘good place’. It is his playful title that gave the English language the term ‘utopian’ in the first place. Moore’s career as a writer and politician ended poorly when King Henry VIII ordered his beheading, but even then he retained his playfulness, stating as he drew his long beard aside so it would not be cut off along with his head, “This hath not offended the king.”
I love word plays for names. Silent Lee, the hero of my teen fantasy fiction series, is not only reserved by nature, she also has a deep secret about which she must remain silent.
In the 1940 Disney Studios film Fantasia, Mickey Mouse is an apprentice to a powerful sorcerer named Yen Sid. Yup, that’s just Disney backward.
Speaking of fun names, what about the Enola Holmes mysteries by author Nancy Springer? The heroine, an imagined younger sister to Sherlock Holmes, is abandoned by her mother on her birthday, leaving her all alonE. Victorians loved these plays on words and the name was actually used on occasion back then (along with Nevaeh, heaven spelled backward).
There used to be a nonprofit whose role was to defend us from unwanted emails or spam. They failed but we still can enjoy their name: Mail Abuse Prevention System, which is MAPS, or SPAM backward.
Puns can be fun although often painful. Here’s one from the schoolyard that might be entertaining if used in a whodunnit: “If you stand by the window, I’ll help you out.”
But try as we may, we’ll never achieve the cleverness of Oscar Wilde, evinced in this famous line from The Importance of Being Ernest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The title of the play itself is of course a clever pun.
Then there is the huge if dubious category of adolescent double entendres. A classic example is a song made famous in the 1880s by English music hall singer and comedian Marie Lloyd which starts with these immortally silly lines: “Oh, she sits among the cabbages and peas / With her little dress away above her knees.” This is obviously a play on a homophone for ‘pea’ and one an adolescent boy might appreciate—and so did millions of adoring fans. Censors and feminists of the era appreciated her humor too, but in a less positive way.
Before we dismiss double entendres as low brow and immature, let’s recall that they are littered throughout Shakespeare. Indeed, the title of one of his most famous plays is itself an example of sexual innuendo. According to scholars, Much Ado About Nothing is a pun on the Elizabethan use of "no-thing" as a slang term for the vagina. (I only learned that today as I did the research for this blog and I kind of wish I hadn’t…)
Serious writing may employ wordplay too. Langston Hughes, known mostly for his powerful poetry, also wrote stories about a character named Jesse B. Semple—nicknamed Simple—whose deceptively simple wisdom offered insight into the African American experience.
There are dozens of types of wordplay. I don’t even know all their names. Spoonerisms are named for William Archibald Spooner, a dyslexic don at Oxford. They flip word order around to make new more silly meanings like when John Lennon said, “Time wounds all heels.” Being dyslexic myself, I used to tell the joke about a bumper sticker reading, Dyslexics of the World Untie, until I finally realized that nobody was laughing but me.
I like to play with official-sounding organizations whose acronyms spell out something silly or telling. In Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key, it is revealed that Silent’s mother, who works for the CIA, is actually an agent for a more shadowy organization called Central Investigation of Alchemy.
When Silent and her sidekick Raahi rescue her Great Aunt, Generous Lee, Raahi accuses the agents of holding her in a safe house—only to have them correct him by saying it’s a “Secure Area For Evaluation.”
Soon the agent who kidnapped her aunt is turned on by others, who announce that there has been “a Level Seven ABUSE OF POWER”—which is an acronym for “Abuse by Uncontrolled Senior Echelon Operative For Personal or Wanton Enrichment and Reward.” Silly, I know, but somehow evocative of the absurdity of government work.
By now my conclusion is self-evident: I believe we should be playful with words, especially when we undertake the entertainment or education of our youth. Playfulness is a remarkable mammalian trait, one that is strongest in humans because it has great evolutionary value. It stimulates creativity, imagination, engagement, and learning.
More specifically, wordplay teaches us about language and thought at the same time that it makes reading more fun.
Now I think it’s time for you to sharpen your wits and jot down an acrostic poem of your own:
What did you come up with?
(Here’s mine: Patiently awaiting a punch line / Laughter sneaks up on us / Always hidden possibilities / Youthful exuberance just a play away)
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon.