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Wordplay is defined by Dave Morice as "the interplay of one or more elements of language that achieves a linguistic special effect beyond ordinary communication" or, in brief, verbal wit. Wordplay, like language itself, is complex—it can take many forms (puns, puzzles, games, jokes, poems). It has been practiced, either intentionally or unintentionally, by almost every author, but some of the most well-known practitioners include William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, James Thurber, Ogden Nash, S.J. Perelman, E.E. Cummings, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Dmitri Borgmann in 1965 coined the term "logology" (meaning systematic recreational linguistics) and divided the field into three broad classes: letter play, sound play, and meaning play. During the past 40 years logology (especially letter play) has been extensively developed.

The topical classification of wordplay in this article can only hint at its complexity.

Properties of words

  • Letter and word frequencies
  • How many words in English?
  • Long words (English)
  • What is a word?
  • The question has too many answers for a short essay.
  • Words as used supply units of meaning for communication through vocalization, aboriginally, then much later for communication through writing.
  • In making that assertion in writing, this communicator set out combinations of letters separated by spaces, mostly different combinations, arranged in a particular order making up a 'sentence', the assertion.
  • Those letter-combinations constitute 'words', each different combination with its own meaning. Some 'words' have more than one meaning, often taken from the context of the message communicated by the sentence.
  • In vocally communicating, each different 'word' also has its own sound-form, with variations around the most common.
  • In the English language, used here, only twenty six letter-types combined in various groups of various sizes enable generation of hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million, unique 'words', or 'word-types.'
  • Although each 'word' has the message of its meaning, endless combinations of those million-or-so word-types enable endless messages of endless degrees of complexity of informational content.
  • Styles of speech-sounds make up dialects, and writing styles abound.
  • We use words to communicate with others and with ourselves, the latter in the form of thinking or, surrogately, in the form of writing.
  • Words supply the mind with symbols that enable and empower thinking analytically ("the wind knocked it over") and synthetically ("let's harness the wind's energy for doing work for us").
  • Words permit mention of themselves, as when we talk about the word 'word' or define 'define'.
  • People use words to write books about words (linguists, lexicographers, poets, logologists).
  • All words exhibit interesting properties of novelty

Properties of letters

  • Vertical and horizontal symmetry (IVY MOUTH WAX, CHECKBOOK)
  • Ascender and descender
  • Headshot and footprint (identifying letters by tops and bottoms)
  • Classification of letter shape (BAKESHOP)

Vowels and consonants

  • Vowel-rich, consonant-rich word
  • Vowel-consonant patterns in word
  • Vowel rotation (PAT-PET-PIT-POT-PUT)
  • All 125 permutations of AEIOU in words (AbstEmIOUs to UncOntInEntAl)
  • Univocalic (SENESCENCE)
  • Characterizing words by their consonants (TRuNCaTe, TuRNCoaT)

Letter patterns

  • Classification of identical patterns (EXCESS, BAMBOO)
  • Palindrome
  • Tautonym
  • Switch word (IN-TERPRET-IN-G)
  • Agamemnon word

Letter distributions

  • Classification of identical distributions (INTONATION, OPPRESSORS 12223)
  • Heterogram (DERMATOGLYPHICS), pair isogram (ARRAIGNING)
  • Pyramid word (SLEEVELESS 1234)
  • Most different letters in a word

Letter fragments

  • Multiple identical letters (MAHARAJAH, BUBBYBUSH)
  • Type collections of bigrams and trigrams (bazAAr, cABin to fuZZ)
  • Internal palindrome and tautonym (kNITTINg, eSCHSCHoltzia)
  • Anchored fragment: all initial bigrams; Miami words (BEDauBED)
  • Initial-final type collection (AreA, AdverB to ZizZ)
  • Cadence (EffErvEscEncEs)

Words in words

  • Solid word (mechANOTHERapy)
  • Kangaroo word (caLumnIES)
  • Charade (CHART-REUSE); charade sentence
  • Alternade (TrIeNnIaLlY)

Restricted letter choice

  • Lipogram
  • Typewriter word (from a given row, or by a given hand)
  • Telephone keypad word
  • Half-alphabet split (HAMAMELIDACEAE, NONSUPPORTS)
  • Word dice
  • Letter bank

Word geometry

  • Word graph (write down different letters, connect with lines)
  • Eodermdrome (word graphs with essential line crossings, as METASOMATOSES)
  • Letters on triangular or hexagonal pavement; letters on faces of regular solid
  • King’s move and Queen’s move graph
  • Word worm (3-d plots, with each letter a vector in an assigned direction)


  • Longest word in alphabetic subsets (J to O: KNOLL)
  • Type collection of letter-rank orders (CAN,YOU,DIG,FOR,THE,NUB)
  • Shiftword (COLD to FROG) and Shiftgram (shift plus transposition)
  • Letters adjacent and in order (fiRST), not adjacent (ReST), neither (SToRe)
  • Complementary word A to Z, B to Y… (GLIB, TORY)

Letter Scoring (A=1,B=2…Z=26)

  • Word weight and density
  • Sumword (ABAFT + ORDER = PEDAL)
  • Sum and difference of adjacent letters (CAN to DO, VASE to URN)
  • Centrally balanced beam word (AXLE = 1x3 + 24x1 = 12x1 + 5x3)
  • Casting out nines (WORN 23x15x18x14 = 86940 sums to 27, sums to 9)

Letter insertions, deletions, substitutions

  • Beheadment, curtailment
  • Word girder (TAPER MOVES to TOPER MAVIS)
  • Word ladder and network
  • Charitable word (SEAT: EAT,SAT,SET,SEA) and stingy words
  • Hospitable word (RAP: TRAP,REAP,RAMP,RAPE) and hostile words
  • Letter tree triangle (S/AE/GNL/AEKO = SAGA,SAGE,…SILK,SILO)
  • Word string (WAS-ASH-SHE-HER-ERA…) and directed network
  • Insertion-deletion network


  • Long well-mixed transposition
  • Letter set with many transpositions (AEGINRST)
  • Transdeletion pyramid (RETAIL-ALTER-TALE-TEA-AT-A)
  • Word root (all transdeletion pyramids) and branch (all transaddition pyramids)
  • Alphabetic transaddition (Area, Bare, raCe…)
  • Substitute-letter transposition (THURSDAY-SATURDAY, SATURN-URANUS)

Word groups

  • Word square
  • Word packing (filling square or rectangular grids)
  • Partial overlap word group (ADO-BAR-BED-BOY-DRY-ORE-YEA)
  • Non-crashing group (YES,RYE,PRY,ASP,SPA,EAR)
  • Each word pair a single crash (HATED,HORNY,FITLY,FAUNS,WIRED,WOULD)
  • Jotto word set (DZONG, CRWTH, JUMPS, FLAKY, VIBEX)

List compression

  • Word interleaving (ONE,TWO,THREE to THRWONEE)
  • Letteral word (DK decay, CD seedy)
  • Encoding several letters with same symbol (polyphonic cipher, telephone keypad)

Number names

  • Self-referential name (FOUR has 4 letters, but score of ONE = 14+15+5, not 1)
  • Self-referential name score using scrambled alphabets
  • Self-descriptive sentence (this sentence contains five words) at word or letter level
  • Base 27 word
  • All words constructible by sets of number names (SIXTEEN+TEN-NINE = SEXTET)
  • Transposition and transaddition of number names
  • Smallest letter set containing n number names (EINNOTW = 1,2,9,10)
  • Roman numbers in word (eXpLetIVe = 44)
  • Number name packing
  • Which letters lead in cumulative cardinal list?

Other types of self-referential words

  • Words that describe their own meaning ('word', 'noun', 'letters')
  • Words that call attention to themselves ('lowercase', 'me', 'this', 'mispelled')
  • Words that call for self-destruction ('delete', 'erase')

Wordplay in special word sets (examples)

  • Presidential name (TAFT: FAT; NO "X" IN NIXON)
  • Other name of people (18 different letters in DEBORAH GLUPCZYNSKI)
  • State name (INDIANA transposes to ANIDIAN, MINNESOTA to NOMINATES)
  • Other place name (first and last: AAT’S BAY, ZZYZX SPRINGS)
  • Chemical element name (CoAgULaTe, FeY = IRONY)

Textual logology

  • Pangrammatic window (record: 56 consecutive letters in text contain A through Z)
  • Pangrammatic highway sign set (shortest distance: 0.35 mi in Morristown NJ)
  • Literary window for various word restrictions (univocalics, lipograms, n-letter words)
  • Where is the middle of an index?
  • How large an index contains words with every alphabetic starting letter?
  • Text convergence (if word has n letters, count n words to next; repeat)
  • Textual acrostic (Act 3 Scene 1 lines 156-61 Midsummer Night’s Dream: T,I,T,An,I,A)

Sound play

  • Syllabification: shortest with n syllables; add letters, subtract syllables (SH-RUGGED)
  • Heteronym and homonym
  • Spelling versus sound: many spellings for same sound, many pronunciations, same letter
  • Spelling rule
  • Rhyme

Literary technique

Annotated bibliography

  • A good survey of wordplay can be found in Dave Morice, The Dictionary of Wordplay (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2001).
  • A collection of literary wordplay can be found in C.C. Bombaugh’s Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest Fields of Literature (1874, reprinted in 1961 by Dover Publications as Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature). More recent examples of the genre are Willard Espy’s An Almanac of Words at Play (Clarkson Potter, 1975) and Another Almanac of Words at Play (Clarkson Potter, 1980); the best examples were reprinted in The Best of an Almanac of Words at Play (Merriam-Webster, 1999). Palindromes seem to hold a particular fascination for lovers of wordplay, and there are many collections; a recent attempt to cover the topic in depth is I Love Me, Vol I: S. Wordrow's Palindrome Encyclopedia, (Algonquin, 1996) ISBN 1565121090.
  • A classic is Dmitri Borgmann’s Language on Vacation (Scribner’s, 1965); in this book, he showed how wordplay can be an intellectual pursuit in its own right, codified as an organized corpus of knowledge. During the past 40 years logology (especially letter play) has been extensively developed in the quarterly journal Word Ways as well as a number of books in various languages: A. Ross Eckler, Jr.’s Making the Alphabet Dance (St. Martin’s, 1996), Hugo Brandt Corstius’s (Battus’s) Opperlans! (Querido, 2002) in Dutch, and Màrius Serra’s Verbalia (Atalaya, 2000) in Catalan.

External links

  • A taxonomy of wordplay together with record-holding words in each category is

available here: Taxonomy of Wordplay

See also