In his book Humorous English, Evan Esar gives example uses of devices he broadly labels synonymics. He writes of synonymic puns:

  • Many a wife sends her husband to an early grave with a series of little digs.
  • They are made for each other. He owns oil wells, and she's always gushing.

The cleverness of these jokes consists in their use of commonly associated words—grave and digs in the first, oil wells and gushing in the second.

And of synonym grouping:

  • Our florist has two children—a girl who's a budding genius and a boy who's a blooming idiot.
  • I went to see a spiritualist. She wasn't good, just medium.

Similarly, these jokes rely on the use of closely related words—florist, budding, and blooming; and spiritualist and medium (intended both as the noun meaning spiritualist and as the comparative between good and bad).

Throughout the book, which is a catalogue of comedic techniques, Esar coins original terms for the phenomena he describes, and so they aren't to be found elsewhere. The use of synonym to describe these devices seems a bit misleading, because they don't use synonyms. They do, however, use words that are quite closely related (but aren’t synonymous). Does anyone know of a technical term for this kind of wordplay? And does anyone know of any examples of its use anywhere else?

2 Answers 2


Puns rely on a range of phenomena that lie somewhere between polysemy and homophony. However, polysemy is a rather complex and fuzzy phenomenon so it's not a perfect fit.

All your examples are cases of polysemy such as 'budding genius'.

But a homophonic pun would be something like "Atheism is a non-prophet institution" or more on the homographic side "You need to Czech Prague out."

However, the question is what makes the puns you list work is something you might call semantic frame dissonance caused by polysemy of words in the punchline that fit into the semantic frame triggered by the set up. For instance, words like 'gush' belongs to the frame of oil extraction but it is not being used in the sense that fits with the frame. Thus the humorous effect. The same is the case with a florist having a budding genius and a blooming idiot for children.

Instead of semantic frame you could talk about 'semantic fields' or you could also conceive of some of the cases as simply collocations.

I think it is this kind of relatedness that made the author talk about synonymy but words like oil well and gush are not synonyms, they are simply semantically related.


Now I don't have a doctorate, but I'd have to have a lot of patience to not just call these jokes punny; a bon mot it is not, not near an apothegm, quippy for sure, I'd probably just call them a polysemous pun.

po·ly·se·my (ˈpäliˌsemē ):

the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase

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