15 of History’s Greatest Puns
While puns may make you groan and have even been called the “lowest and most groveling form of wit,” a good one is a thing of beauty that’s worth celebrating.
1. “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
2. “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”
William Shakespeare is well known for his love of wordplay, as evidenced by this line from Act III of Romeo and Juliet, said by Mercutio after suffering a mortal stab wound from Tybalt.
3. “Now is the winter of our discontent/ made glorious summer by this son of York”
Shakespeare employs the classic son/sun pun to great effect in the opening lines of Richard III.
4. “I see their knavery: This is to make an ass of me”
One more for the Bard! This line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is rife with punnery and dramatic irony, as Bottom, whose head has recently been made to look like a donkey’s, says it before becoming aware of his transformation.
5. “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
This now-ubiquitous pun is largely attributed to Mark Twain, although there is no evidence to support that the novelist was the first to utter it—or that he ever said it at all. Researchers have been able to trace it back to a 1931 newspaper joke contest, but they can’t be certain it originated from Twain. What everyone can agree on: It’s a tremendous pun.
6. “But swear by thyself that at my death thy Son / Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;/ And, having done that, thou hast done; / I fear no more.”
There’s a lot going on here, and you need a bit more information to fully unpack this pun from “A Hymn to God the Father,” by 16th century poet John Donne. While the play on son/sun and corresponding reference to “shining” are fairly obvious, the real kicker is Donne’s allusion to himself and his wife, Anne Moore, in the final lines (“thou has done; I fear no more”).
7. “The Mouse’s Tale” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The works of Lewis Carroll are full of clever allusions and wordplay, and a great example is “The Mouse’s Tale,” a poem found within Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Mouse introduces the poem by saying, “Mine is a long and sad tale!” To which Alice, clearly confusing tale with tail, responds, “It is a long tail, certainly, but why do you call it sad?” The poem acts as a visual pun as well, as the text winds its way down the novel’s page like a mouse’s tail.
The story goes that British general Sir Charles Napier sent the one-word dispatch “Peccavi” to his superiors after conquering the Indian province of Sind in 1843—expressly against their orders. “Peccavi,” you see, is Latin for “I have sinned.” However, Napier did not make this near-perfect pun at all—it was coined by the teenaged Catherine Winkworth in an 1844 submission to a humor magazine that mistakenly printed her bit of wit as fact.
9. “Immanuel doesn’t pun, he Kant.”
Oscar Wilde is credited with this clever (and self-referential) play on philosopher Immanuel Kant’s name.
10. “Great praise be given to God and little laud to the Devil.”
This pun may well have been the most biting one in history. Court jester Archibald Armstrong dropped the zinger on William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, while saying grace at a court event during the reign of King James I. Armstrong had little love for Laud, who was notoriously touchy about his height. While Laud took the butt-end of Armstrong’s wit, the archbishop got the last laugh: Armstrong’s punishment was “to have his coat pulled over his head and be discharged the king's service and banished the king's court."
11. “Why should the number 288 never be mentioned in company? Because it is two gross.”
Victorians loved their puns, and this unattributed witticism from the 19th century is still sure to get a chuckle out of any math enthusiast you’re entertaining.
12. “We Polked You in ’44, We Shall Pierce You in ‘52.”
When Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce needed a boost in the 1852 presidential election, he used this slogan. By calling in the memory of James K. Polk’s successful 1844 campaign, Pierce’s supporters were able to carry their underdog candidate into the White House. Who knew a good pun could change American history?
13. “Land-On Washington”
Of course, not even puns were enough to save some campaigns. When Republican challenger Alf Landon tried to take the White House from Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, he attempted to woo the public with puns like “Land-On Washington” on buttons showing Landon’s face superimposed on an airplane and signs reading, “Let’s Make It a Landon-Slide.” On Election Day, the New Deal triumphed over these visual puns.
14. The Cyclops Episode in Homer’s Odyssey
When Odysseus lands at the isle of Cyclopes in Homer’s Odyssey, he tells the giant Polyphemus that his name is “Outis,” Greek for “nobody.” Later, as Odysseus blinds the Cyclops with a sharpened stick, Polyphemus cries out that “Nobody” is hurting him. In response, his fellow giants recommend that Polyphemus pray to a higher power for help instead of coming to his aid. If Homer could get away with an extended pun in one of the greatest poems of all time, we should all be able to break them out at dinner.
15. “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”
This sage bit of punny advice is commonly attributed to Winston Churchill. But while it’s true that Churchill was a huge fan and avid purveyor of snappy zingers, researchers have been unable to definitively attribute this one to the former prime minister. Whether Churchill or an unknown punster first said it, it’s still a truly great pun.
A version of this piece ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2021.