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The pun or play on words (lusus verborum) is common in both Greek and Latin as it is in the Oriental literatures. It was not merely an amusement or a trick of speech as it is to-day, but was based upon the generally prevalent notion that there is an intimate connection between things and their names, and that a likeness of name denotes a certain likeness of quality in the things named. (See Philologia.) Hence a species of divination from names (Onomantia) existed, and omens were regularly sought in names. It is for this reason that we find the greatest writers systematically punning even in their most serious passages, as in the famous line of Aeschylus when he plays on the name of Helen (Agamem. 689):
Ἑλένη ἑλένας ἕλανδρας ἑλέπτολις.

(See also lines 1040, 1049 of the same play; and Prom. 718, 742, 875; Theocr. xxvi. 26, etc.) So the Romans enrolled in their military levies the names of good omen, such as Felix, Faustus, Victor, etc., at the head of the lists, and put such auspicious ones as Salvius Valerius first on the roll of the census. On one occasion the Roman troops mutinied because they were to be led into the field by one Atrius Umber (Livy, xxviii. 28). So Ausonius (Epist. xx.) says:
Nam divinare est nomen componere, quod sit
Fortunae, morum, vel necis iudicium.

Changes of name were often made on the principle of punning, as when the enemies of the Athenians (Ἀθηναῖοι) called them Κεχηναῖοι (Aristoph. Eq. 1262), when the Romans gave the drink-loving Tiberius Claudius Nero the expressive nickname of Biberius Caldius Mero, suggesting bibo, calda, and merum (see the article Nomen at the end), and when Jerome called his adversary Vigilantius, “Dormitantius.” Cicero was especially fond of puns, and a collection of these was made and published, which is mentioned by Quintilian (vi. 3, 5; cf. id. vi. 3, 3; Macrobius, Sat. ii. 2, 5, where some of them are quoted; Iul. 50; Plut. Cic. 38).

See the chapter of Quintilian, De Risu (vi. 3, 5); Lersch, Sprachphilosophie, iii. 11-17; Sturz, Opuscula, p. 78; Mervoyer, Sur l'Association des Idées (Paris, 1864); Farrar, Chapters on Language, pp. 235-250 (London, 1873); and Salverte, History of Names, pp. 8 foll. (London, 1862).

hide References (6 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (6):
    • Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 718
    • Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 742
    • Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 875
    • Aristophanes, Knights, 1262
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 28, 28
    • Plutarch, Cicero, 38
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