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.
  • πς γρ οχὶ γεννάδας,
    στις γε πίνειν οδε κα βινεν μόνον;
    Xanthias, describing his master Dionysus in The Frogs, line 740:
    Yes, 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.

*or him, or her.

Golden lines, and others

Professor Charles Gordon Cooper draws attention to golden lines:
‘Golden line is the name given to a line in which the poet, taking advantage of Latin’s peculiar powers as an inflectional language, arranges his words:–

       adjective   adjective   verb   noun   noun.

scilicet et tempus veniet, cum finibus illis
agricola incurvo terram molitus aratro
exesa inveniet scabra robigine pila
aut gravibus rastris galeas pulsabit inanis
      grandiaque effossis mirabitur ossa sepulcris.
                                                Georgics I.493-497

‘The last of these lines—and it is a magnificent climax—is a golden line. By its means a dramatic effect is obtained which is denied to a positional language such as English.With grandiaque effossis we see something huge, mysterious, undefined, emerging from the upturned soil. mirabitur communicates the wonder and excitement of discovery. Not till the end of the line is the suspense relieved and the mystery solved. With ossa we recognize that the huge, strange things are human bones, and with sepulcris we realize that the plough’s furrow is a violated grave.’
Charles Gordon Cooper, An Introduction to the Latin Hexameter (Macmillan 1952).


Virgil uses a golden line when he describes how Dido is dressed for the hunt:

aurea purpuream subnectit fibula vestem.
                                                 Aeneid IV.139

We hear of gold and purple first, with their gleaming and glowing opulence; then the fastening, then the brooch, then the cloak. It all happens in the space of a second, but this process involves the listener.

Not a golden line, but similar in effect, is Virgil’s description of the Trojans’ happiness when they believed that the Greeks had gone home:

ergo omnis longo solvit se Teucria luctu.
                                                        Aeneid II.26

Such is an inflected language, and such are its requirements of the listener. Latin demands consciousness and mental process, and you don’t pick it up unconsciously.

Next post: Thoughts from 19th century America.