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Hello everyone! We have a interesting and playful poetry device which we can incorporate in our poetry writing – word play.

Word play, also written as wordplay, word-play, or a play on words, is when a writer experiments with the sound, meaning, and/or construction of words to produce new and interesting meanings. In other words, the writer is twisting language to say something unexpected, with the intent of entertaining or provoking the reader.

Wordplay definition: Experimentation with the sounds, definitions, and/or constructions of words to produce new and interesting meanings.

Fly, Dragon Fly by Bjorn Rudberg


O, dragon-sun, the fear-
ful father, a thawer of snow,
melt-master, icicle-trickster,
in March you blind me awake
from the famines of frost.


O, moon-son, spiller of silver,
master of shadows, silent
and cold, advise me how
I may fly, with only my will,
bereaved of my wings.


O, earth, obscurer of spirits,
still frozen you keep, soil-bound
your worms, waiting for warmth,
while deep in your waters, dragon-
fly nymphs fatten for flight.


Word play isn’t just a way to have fun with language, it’s also a means of creating new and surprising meanings. By experimenting with the possibilities of sound and meaning, writers can create new ideas that traditional language fails to encompass.

Let’s see word play in action. The following examples of a play on words all come from published works of literature.

Anthimeria is a type of word play in which a word is employed using a different part of speech than what is typically associated with that word. (For reference, the parts of speech are: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, articles, interjections, conjunctions, and prepositions.)

Most commonly, a writer using anthimeria will make a verb a noun (nominalization), or make a noun a verb (verbification). It would be much harder to employ this device using other parts of speech: using an adjective as a pronoun, for example, would be difficult to read, even for the reader familiar with anthimeria.

Here are some word play examples using anthimeria:

The thunder would not peace at my bidding.

—From King Lear, (IV, vi.) by Shakespeare

The word “peace” is being used as a verb, meaning “to calm down.” Many anthimeria examples come to us from Shakespare, in part because of his genius with language, and in part because he needed to use certain words that would preserve the meter of his verse.

“I’ll unhair thy head.”

—From Antony and Cleopatra (II, v.) by Shakespeare

Of course, “unhair” isn’t a word at all. But, it’s using “hair” as a verb, and then using the opposite of that verb, to express scalping someone’s hair off.

Up from my cabin, My sea-gown scarf’d about me, in the dark
Groped I to find out them; had my desire.

—From Hamlet, (V, ii.) by Shakespeare

Shakespeare is using “scarf” as a verb, meaning “to wrap around.” Nowadays, the use of “scarf” as a verb is recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary, but at the time, this was a very new usage of the word.

It’s difficult to find examples of nominalization in literature, mostly because it’s not a wise decision in terms of writing style. Verbs are the strongest parts of speech: they provide the action of your sentences, and can also provide necessary description and characterization in far fewer words than nouns and adjectives can. Using a verb as a noun only hampers the power of that verb.

Nonetheless, we use verbs as nouns all the time in everyday conversation. If you “hashtag” something on social media, you’re using the noun hashtag as a verb. Or, if you “need a good drink,” you’re noun-ing the verb “drink.” Often, nouns become acceptable dictionary entries for verbs because of the repeated use of nominalizations in everyday speech.

“The parishioners about here,” continued Mrs. Day, not looking at any living being, but snatching up the brown delf tea-things, “are the laziest, gossipest, poachest, jailest set of any ever I came among.”

—From Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

The words “gossipest, poachest, jailest” might seem silly or immature. But, they’re fun and striking uses of language, and they help characterize Mrs. Day through dialogue.

“I’ll get you, my pretty.
—From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

By using the adjective “pretty” as a noun, the witch’s use of anthimeria in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz strikes a chilling note: it’s both pejorative and suggests that the witch could own Dorothy’s beauty.

Anthimeria isn’t just a form of language play, it’s also a means of forging neologisms, which eventually enter the English lexicon. Many words began as anthimerias. For example, the word “typing” used to be a new word, as people didn’t “employ type” until the invention of typing devices, like typewriters. The word “ceiling” comes from an antiquated word “ceil,” meaning sky: “ceiling” means to cover over something, and that verb eventually became the noun we use today.

The kenning is a type of metaphor that was popular among medieval poets. It is a phrase, usually two nouns, that describes something figuratively, often using words only somewhat related to the object being described.

If you’ve read Beowulf, you’ve seen the kenning in action—and you know that, in translation, some kennings are easier understood than others. For example, the ocean is often described as the “whale path,” which makes sense. But a dragon is described as a “mound keeper,” and if you don’t know that dragons in literature tend to hoard piles of gold, it might be harder to understand this kenning.

A kenning is constructed with a “base word” and a “determinant.” The base word has a metaphoric relationship with the object being described, and the determinant modifies the base word. So, in the kenning “whale path,” the “path” is the base word, as it’s a metaphor for the sea. “Whale” acts as a determinant, cluing the reader towards the water.

The kenning is a play on words because it uses marginally related nouns to describe things in new and exciting language. Here are a few examples:

At some point in the text of Beowulf, the following kennings occur:

Battle shirt — armor
Battle sweat — blood
Earth hall — burial mound
Helmet bearer — warrior
Raven harvest — corpse
Ring giver — king
Sail road — the sea
Sea cloth — sail
Sky candle — the sun
Sword sleep — death

Don’t be too surprised by all of the references to fighting and death. Most of Beowulf is a series of battles, and given that the story developed across centuries of Old English, much of the epic poem explores God, glory, and victory.

The majority of kennings come from Old English poetry, though some contemporary poets also employ the device in their work. Here are a few more kenning word play examples.

So the earth-stepper spoke, mindful of hardships,
of fierce slaughter, the fall of kin:
Oft must I, alone, the hour before dawn
lament my care. Among the living
none now remains to whom I dare
my inmost thought clearly reveal.
I know it for truth: it is in a warrior
noble strength to bind fast his spirit,
guard his wealth-chamber, think what he will.

—”The Wanderer” (Anonymous)

“The Wanderer” is a poem anonymously written and preserved in a codex called The Exeter Book, a manuscript from the late 900s. It contains approximately ⅙ of the Old English poetry we know about today. In this poem, an “earth-stepper” is a person, and a “wealth-chamber” is the wanderer’s mind or heart—wherever it is that he stores his immaterial virtues.

No, they’re sapped and now-swept as my sea-wolf’s love-cry.

—from “Cuil Cliffs” by Ian Crockatt

Ian Crockatt is a contemporary poet and translator from Scotland, and his work with Old Norse poetry certainly influences his own poems. “Sea wolf” is a kenning for “sailor,” and a “love cry” is a love poem.

There is a singer everyone has heard,Loud, a mid-summer and a
mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

—“The Oven Bird” by Robert Frost

In this Frost sonnet, the speaker employs the kenning “petal-fall” to describe the autumn. The full text of the poem has been included, not for any particular reason, other than it’s simply a lovely, striking poem.

An oxymoron is a self-contradictory phrase. It is usually just two words long, with each word’s definition contrasting the other one’s, despite the apparent meaning of the words themselves. It is a play on words because opposing meanings are juxtaposed to form a new, seemingly-impossible idea.

A common example of this is the phrase “virtual reality.” Well, if it’s virtual, then it isn’t reality, just a simulation of a new reality. Nonetheless, we employ those words together all the time, and in fact, the juxtaposition of these incompatible terms creates a new, interesting meaning.

Oxymorons occur all the time in everyday speech. “Same difference,” “Only option,” “live recording,” and even the genre “magical realism.” In any of these examples, a new meaning forms from the placement of these incongruous words.

Here are a few examples from literature:

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

—Romeo and Juliet (II; ii), by Shakespeare

“No light; but rather darkness visible

—Paradise Lost by John Milton

“Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.”

—“The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson

Note: an oxymoron is not self-negating, but self-contradictory. The use of opposing words should mean that each word cancels the other out, but in a good oxymoron, a new meaning is produced amidst the contradictions. So, you can’t just put two opposing words together: writing “the healthy sick man,” for example, doesn’t mean anything, unless maybe it’s placed into a very specific context. An oxymoron should produce new meaning on its own.

Source:  Word Play:  Examples of Play on Words by Sean Glatch

Poets, are you ready to sword-play and spook-slay us with your poetry? We will delightfully read your garden salad of words by linking up with Mr. Linky.

To join us for Thursday’s Meeting the Bar, here’s how to join:
See you at the poetry trail. ~Grace~