This is not just a fancy word for a pun, whatever certain works of reference or internet misinformants may think. It is generic for any play on the sounds of words, of which the pun seems a trivial form and can be quite silly. Charles Lamb wrote that a pun ‘is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.’ (Last Essays of Elia: Popular Fallacies, No.9)
The purpose of a pun is usually just the pun; but paronomasia can be solemn or even sad, when it is used by speakers or writers to make the assertion itself memorable—which is the motive even for ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’.
A few examples:
- non Angli, sed Angeli: these are the words commonly attributed to Gregory the Great when he saw some English slave children for sale in Rome. What Bede actually says is that when Gregory asked where the children came from,
‘responsum est, quod Angli vocarentur. at ille, “bene,” inquit; “nam et angelicam habent faciem, et tales angelorum in caelis decet esse coheredes.” Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica II.1
- urbi et orbi: the solemn blessing by the Pope from the balcony of St Peter’s.
- modo patet, modo latet: source unknown.
Now you see it, now you don’t.
- πῶς γὰρ οὐχὶ γεννάδας,
ὅστις γε πίνειν οἶδε καὶ βινεῖν μόνον;
Xanthias, describing his master Dionysus in The Frogs, line 740:
Of course he’s a gentleman,
his skills are only drinking and bonking.
- tibi erunt parata verba, huic homini verbera: said by the slave Syrus to his master Clitipho, warning him that they may ‘catch it’: huic homini refers to himself.
Terence, Heauton Timoroumenos, line 115.
Translated by one student as “You’ll get a tongue lashing, I’ll get a good thrashing.”
- dum spiro, spero: Roman proverb.
- I love thilke lasse, (alas, why doe I love?): the lament of Colin Cloute in Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender: Januarye.
The OED defines it as:
- False and malicious misrepresentation of the words or actions of others, calculated to injure their reputation; libellous detraction, slander.
- A false charge or imputation, intended to damage another’s reputation; a slanderous report.
This reveals a range of meaning, and the word is not used in English law. But in Roman law, the word had a specific meaning: calumnia denoted a malicious prosecution knowingly proceeded with. A reus who was acquitted might consider an action against his prosecutor for calumnia, and the penalty for that might be banishment, or—as appears from Cicero’s speech Pro Roscio Amerino—to have the letter K for Kalumniator branded on his forehead, that being the ancient spelling of the word.
The offence of calumnia had been defined by the Lex Remmia, but little detail is available. What is interesting is that Cicero’s speech in defence of Roscius of Ameria, which was his first criminal case, established his reputation for both oratory and courage. Roscius was in court accused of having murdered his father, and was being prosecuted in a conspiracy by the very people who had actually committed the murder. It was calumnia at its most outrageous: the conspiracy was instigated by Chrysogonus, freedman of the dictator Sulla; and it seems to have been general knowledge that the motive for the murder was to obtain the dead man’s property: for he was a rich landowner.
In that speech (Ch.84) occurs the memorable question cui bono? — ‘Who stood to gain?’ But those two words are not Cicero’s: he was quoting them from Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla, consul in 127BC, who had used that principle in judging criminal cases. Cicero uses the words again in Pro Milone Ch.12.
In our legal system, the malicious prosecution of Roscius would not have got as far as the courts, for the prosecutor Erucius, who was a puppet of Chrysogonus, actually had no evidence to present.