Witty puns from across the globe!
October 30, 2008 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Do puns exist in other languages?

I have recently had some contact with a guy from Germany and a girl from France. In our discussions regarding the difference between the two cultures, I realized that understanding puns in a second language would be a very difficult thing.

To test the guess I mentioned a few, and they did not take. So I tried explaining as best as I could (I know neither German nor French) the concept of a pun, and asked if they had any in their own language. Of course the easiest way to make someone forget all the jokes they have ever heard is to ask them to tell a joke, so I do not believe that they just don't exist, but I really want examples.

English examples:
-There was a strip club in the airport, it was called "the landing strip". It works on 3 levels, think about it.

-I typically read my newspapers on the toilet, my favorite is the "daily log". Again, 3 levels.

So I am looking for examples that are entirely in another language that use the same "punny" techniques. Is there a name for this play on words in other languages? If there is a name for this in other languages (specifically french) that would be great. Additionally, if you could provide any and all examples of this in other languages, that would be excellent.
posted by milqman to Human Relations (52 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
What you're describing is not so much a pun as a double entendre (a subset of puns). Anyway, ASL has puns all over the place, particularly in the form of alphabet stories. (Somewhat corny demonstration here; some of them are more art-like.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:23 AM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Jeu de mots
posted by vacapinta at 11:25 AM on October 30, 2008

I've always been amazed at how the originally french Asterix & Obelix puns translate so well into english.
posted by nomisxid at 11:25 AM on October 30, 2008

Hmm...this makes me think of an anecdote my friend's French professor told her. Many Americans mis-pronounce the last syllable of "Merci Beaucoup" (Thank you very much) so that the "coup" sounds more like the Frnech "cul" (ass). So instead it comes out like "Merci beau cul" (Thanks, nice ass).

I thought it was so funny I immortalized it in stitch.
posted by radioamy at 11:26 AM on October 30, 2008 [5 favorites]

The French sometimes make puns half in French and half in English. In Grenoble there is a hair salon called "Volt-hair".

(What is it with hair salons and punny names?)
posted by mkb at 11:29 AM on October 30, 2008

To my understanding, puns are quite common in Japanese, and often involve multiple readings of kanji. (I don't speak or read it, though.)

Also, the best part about puns in languages you're learning is that you get to enjoy the really cheesy jokes. :)
posted by silentbicycle at 11:30 AM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia on dajare, Japanese puns.
posted by adamrice at 11:32 AM on October 30, 2008

So I am looking for examples that are entirely in another language

Que hace el pez? Nada!

Que dije el numero diesiocho al numero dos? Vente conmigo!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:33 AM on October 30, 2008 [6 favorites]

Puns definitely exist in other languages.

Cantonese is full of puns, often based on the written word- for instance, in the Toisan dialect, the character for "smart" looks like the character for "glue". My grandmother used to joke, "you're smart like glue!" (Neet DYUNG gwunnet Dyung Woo!) Also, in many Asian cultures, the number 4 is considered unlucky because it sounds like the word for "death", so I'm assuming dark puns would be made there, too.

A data point: I spent some time in Germany a few years back and I noticed that I had a hard time getting German people to laugh at my English puns, even though they understood the meanings of my puns and were making puns themselves in German. For instance, in German, my friend's surname, Dapp, sounds like the word for "idiot" (Depp), so he's the recipient of a lot of puns.

Oh, and a Hindi cab driver once told me that on his first day of cabbie school in North America, the instructor introduced himself as "Bob Lund", and all the cabbies fell over laughing because "Lund" has a different meaning in Hindi. The cabbie told me that the Lund puns were endless during the course.

Puns don't translate well, though. There's a Salvador Dali painting titled with a pun: Les oeufs sur le plat, sans le plat. "Oeufs sur le plat" - literally, "eggs on the plate" is the way to say fried eggs, so the transliteration is "Eggs on the plate- without the plate". But in English you just say "Fried eggs, without the plate", which isn't funny at all. The movie Amelie has a sequence near the beginning where six-year old Amelie makes a pun about hens, and her teacher gives her the stinkeye. But the scene is pretty much incomprehensible in subtitles, because the puns are untranslateable.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:34 AM on October 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

Asterix & Obelix was the first thing I thought of too. There's an interview with the English translators in The Complete Guide to Asterix where they discuss translating the puns from French to English.
posted by GuyZero at 11:34 AM on October 30, 2008

This reminds me of something I read years ago on a french candywrapper:

Why are English houses so unstrudy? Because they are built in ice. (Anglais / en glace)
posted by HFSH at 11:35 AM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this qualifies, but it was the first "joke" I understood in a foreign language. I'll give the direct English translation first, and then try and spell it out in French.

Q: What color are peas?
A: The Goldfish!

Q: De quel couleur les petits pois?
A: Les petits pois sont rouges! (Les Petits poissons-rouges)

So... yeah, I don't know if that qualifies as a "pun" per se, but I thought it might be applicable...
posted by indiebass at 11:39 AM on October 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Puns in other languages can be extremely difficult to explain, but I'll give one a try, here. It's from an episode of Dragonball Z.

There's an odd affectation that shows up in manga and anime sometimes where some character will have a signature verbal phrase of some kind which they append to the end of every sentence. For example, in Petite Princess Yucie there's a magical gate at the entrance of the Princess Academy, above which is a face. He can speak, and he ends every sentence with "geeto" (i.e. "gate").

In DBZ, there's an afterlife, heaven and hell. Hell is run by ogres, oni in Japanese. And for some reason, Toriyama decided that they all would end every sentence by saying "oni".

At one point Cell has gotten loose in Hell and is kicking ass. Goku and Paikuhan are sent down to stop him. They find a couple of the ogres cowering in the bushes in fear, and Goku tells them that he and Paikuhan are there to stop Cell. And the two ogres look up, thankfully, and say, Hontou ni?

Hontou means "truth". What they're saying is "Do you really mean it?"

But, of course, it also puns on the way they end all their sentences with "oni".

In Japanese it's a lot easier to pun when you're speaking than when you're writing. They use kanji as a way of disambiguating written puns. (In fact, the ambiguity of bare hiragana is the reason that the Japanese adopted the use of kanji, way back in the depths of time.)

But if you're really determined to write a pun, you can write the critical word with hiragana or katakana.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:39 AM on October 30, 2008

French is loaded with wordplay as vacapinta notes. One recurrent example is the phrase "sans mot dire" which means "without saying a word"; but it suggests the similar-sounding "sans maudire": without cursing.
posted by jet_silver at 11:39 AM on October 30, 2008

There are plenty of puns and double entendre/innuendo in french and spanish. "double entente" or "sous-entendre" are descriptions of the phenomena in modern french. I'm afraid my skills don't extend as far as examples.

As a general rule though, any language that Terry Pratchett books can be translated into has puns. Except possibly german, but then german humour is... unique. I'm told the french translations are excellent examples of localised puns, while retaining the flavour of the english originals.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:39 AM on October 30, 2008

puns and wordplay are huge in Japanese. The above poster is right- its all about other readings of kanji, so there's lots of double entendre and things of that nature.
posted by zennoshinjou at 11:41 AM on October 30, 2008

Oh, here's an example of an awesomely translated pun: a particular Canadian brand of chocolate milk used to use the slogan, "Udderly good" (sounds like "utterly", with a reference to a cow's udder). The translation on the French side of the carton was "Vachement bien". It's a fabulously lucky translation: "vache" is the French word for "cow", and "vachement" is a slang term that means "extremely".
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:41 AM on October 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

Here's a fantastic three-language politial pun: the Barack Obama English/French/Hebrew slogan, YES OUI 'KEN. Each word means "yes" in its own language, and reading it aloud results in an English pun, on Obama's campaign slogan, "Yes we can". Perfect.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:48 AM on October 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: This is all very excellent, you guys rock!

@StevenCDenBeste: Is that why Naruto always ends his phrases in "tebayo"? Suddenly it is all coming together!
posted by milqman at 11:48 AM on October 30, 2008

Ok, so the various bits that make it up were written over 1000 years in many different dialects but in many parts of the Tanakh (aka: "The Old Testament") there are loads of puns in the original.

One small example: "mana" (basically sweet bug-shit that you can scrape off desert plants in the morning and eat) is also the ancient Hebrew word for "what is it?". It's the 12th century BC version of "Who's on base?"
posted by Riemann at 11:53 AM on October 30, 2008

Here's a pun that works in English and French:

Person A: Do you smoke after sex?
Person B: I don't know - I've never checked.
posted by O9scar at 12:11 PM on October 30, 2008

Spanish example:

P: ¿Por qué son los peces los animales más perezosos?
R: ¿Que hace un pez? ¡Nada!

In English:
Q: why are fish the laziest animals?
A: What does a fish do? It swims!
("nada" is a participle form of "swim" and also means "nothing")
posted by substars at 12:40 PM on October 30, 2008

As others have pointed out, there even exists wordplay between languages. A joke my spanish teacher told our class once:

During her first visit to the U.S., she saw a coke machine with the word D-I-M-E on it, obviously referring to the currency of payment. She bent in close to the machine and whispered, "Una Coca-Cola, por favor..."

"Di me" means "tell me" in spanish.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 12:41 PM on October 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

Again, in French, one of Marcel Duchamp's works involved painting a mustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa. He wrote below the portrait: L H O O Q.

I may get this slightly wrong, but if you say the letters out loud, they sound something like "Elle a chaud au cul," or "she has a hot ass."
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 12:56 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia says, about Naruto, "In the original Japanese versions of Naruto, Naruto often ends his sentences with the addendum "-ttebayo" (which achieves an effect similar to ending a sentence with "you know?"). Kishimoto wanted to give Naruto a childlike catch phrase, and "dattebayo" came to mind."

A good example of written Japanese puns is the following (taken from Issendai's Lair):
Shishiwakamaru, the bloodthirsty swordsman of Yu Yu Hakusho, is named shishi (lion), waka (young), -maru (a common suffix for samurai boys' names). However, Shishi is written not with the "lion" kanji, but with a doubled kanji that means "death" (shi), so his name appears to mean "death-death-young-maru." Native speakers know that "death-death" is a kanji pun for "lion."

I guess puns are just an extension of our fascination with pattern recognition, but it's interesting (and amusing!) to see how widespread they are.
posted by ashirys at 1:00 PM on October 30, 2008

There are Hebrew puns in the Bible. I had some explained to me, but I couldn't remember them to repeat them.
posted by low affect at 1:09 PM on October 30, 2008

Russian: The word for Friday is пятница, which they mash it up with the word пить (to drink) and out comes a more descriptive term for Friday, питница! Hooray Drinksday!

*For the latin-alphabet inclined, are pyatnitsa, pit', and pitnitsa, respectively
posted by soma lkzx at 1:40 PM on October 30, 2008

My recent favorite anime is full of puns. Even the title (Yakitate!! Japan) has a pun. It's an anime about competitive baking (no, really), and "pan" is Japanese for "bread". The main character is trying to create a national bread for Japan (like French bread for France), so there's always an emphasis on Japan. There's also a ton of wordplay in the extreme reactions the judges have after tasting the breads.

I watched a fansub so there were pop-up notes from time to time contextualizing some of the jokes.
posted by itesser at 1:51 PM on October 30, 2008

Man, some day I'm gonna buy Le Ton beau de Marot. Some day after I finish the first 500+ page Hoffstedter book I bought, mind you.

Regardless, at least check out the wikipedia page--the full book is full of this sort of thing. And, of course, more.

The title itself is a pun, revealing many of the themes of the work: le ton beau means ‘the beautiful tone’ or ‘the sweet tone’. But the word order is unusual for French; it would be more common to write le beau ton. A French speaker hearing the title spoken would be more likely to interpret it as le tombeau de Marot; where tombeau may mean ‘tomb’ (as per the cover picture), but also ‘a work of art (literature or music) done in memory and homage to a deceased person’. (The title is intended to parallel the title of Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin.) In a further play on the title, Hofstadter refers to his deceased wife, to whom the book is dedicated as ma rose ("my rose"), and to himself as ton beau ("your dear"). The size of the book must also be a reference to a kind of "physical pun". At around 600 pages the work is a veritable "tome" as well, particularly as the cover image contains a cross headstone and graveyard references.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 2:35 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry to pile on about the Japanese thing, but not only do they have puns, puns were traditionally a respected poetic tool as well as a humorous one (self-links). Often you will read fuddy-duddies complaining about vast swathes of traditional Japanese poetry being all but untranslatable (and/or valueless) owing to its excessive reliance on puns.
posted by No-sword at 2:58 PM on October 30, 2008

(In fact, the ambiguity of bare hiragana is the reason that the Japanese adopted the use of kanji, way back in the depths of time.)

No, it's not. Kanji came first, borrowed from China. Before that, the Japanese had no native writing system. Hiragana and katakana were developed later, from kanji, not the other way around.

It is indeed true that bare hiragana is ambiguous and difficult to read, but that's partly because kanji came first -- all the on-yomi ("Chinese" pronunciation) homophones make it difficult to tell which word is meant without the accompanying kanji. Also, the modern habit of mixing kanji and hiragana makes it much easier to tell where words begin and end!
posted by vorfeed at 3:00 PM on October 30, 2008

This reminds me of something I read years ago on a french candywrapper:

Why are English houses so unstrudy? Because they are built in ice. (Anglais / en glace)

I bet it was Parce qu'elle sont anglaises (en glaise = made of clay).
posted by aroberge at 3:20 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll throw in another Spanish example. I'm going to mangle it, though, since it's been a while since I've spoken any Spanish and have been learning Portuguese in the interim! Perhaps someone can fix it up:

¿Como son una manzana y un tren similares?
¡Ningún es pera / espera!

How are an apple and a train similar?
Neither is a pear / neither waits!

The pun comes from "es pera" = "is a pear" and "espera" = "waits" sounding the same.
posted by losvedir at 3:36 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

in the book almost french, the author, assuming the words are the same in both french and english, asks her french boyfriend, in front of a large group of male french friends, "tu veux un pipe?", as he enjoys a smoke after dinner, not knowing the word refers to something else you might offer your boyfriend. . . played to great comedic effect.
posted by chickadee at 4:08 PM on October 30, 2008

My Portuguese professor in college told us this once:
The Portuguese word for "celebrate" (like to celebrate a birthday) is "comemorar," and "come" means "eat". So as a joke in Brazil, when people go out to a bar for someone's birthday, they say "bebemorar" ("beber" means "to drink").

Also, while reading the Wikipedia entry on Spoonerisms, I found a hilariously appropriate Dutch Spoonerism, in which the phrase "Til death do us part" becomes "Til the sh*t kills us." Genius.
posted by rebel_rebel at 4:26 PM on October 30, 2008

You know the children's game where you take turns saying "I one a dog turd" "I two a dog turd" and so on, where the aim is to make the other person say "I eight/ate a dog turd"?

Well, there's a French version where you take turns saying "Bread one" "Bread two" and so on. The aim is to make the other person say "Bread Seven" because it sounds like "Pinch me."
posted by the latin mouse at 4:34 PM on October 30, 2008

As mentioned above, Chinese is full of them. There are a few explained on the wikipedia page about Chinese New Year, for instance. Fish are popular in decoration and menus during the celebration because the word for fish sounds like the word for wealth or surplus. Chinese text messages and instant messages often end with 88, because the Chinese pronunciation of the digits is "ba ba" which sounds like "bye, bye."

I can't come up with many examples in Russian, but the one that comes to mind is a common fast-food restaurant name "Vremya est'" It means both, "It's time to eat" and "There is time."
posted by msbrauer at 5:15 PM on October 30, 2008

Not a double entendre, but multi-lingual pun.

In New Zealand, the cheap, Walmart-ish chain 'The Warehouse' is sometimes referred to as a joke, as the "Ware Whare"
Whare being house in maori, and the Ware pronounced Maori-style ("Wah-re Fah-re" - r is that kinda d sounding r).

Sadly, I'm blanking on any others at the moment.
posted by Elysum at 5:38 PM on October 30, 2008

Last spring, there was a (really quite lousy) ecchi romantic comedy broadcast whose name was "To Love Ru". The name turns out to be a Japanese pun on English words. The Japanese romanization of the name is "tu ra bu ru" which also turns out to be how they romanize the English word "trouble".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:44 PM on October 30, 2008

I had been under the impression that Naruto's -ttebayo was more an indication of informal slang-y way of talking, since -ttebayo is a legitimate verb conjugation ending.

I could be wrong.
posted by Phire at 7:10 PM on October 30, 2008

Serge Gainsbourg's "Inceste de citron" (lemon incest) is a play on "un zeste de citron" (lemon zest).

Stephen Chow is also famous for his puns and double entendres and such poking fun at Chinese pop culture and history.

According to this article "little bottle" is a pun on Deng Xiaoping's name (protestors would smash little bottles during demonstrations).
posted by ostranenie at 7:26 PM on October 30, 2008

An old acquaintance of mine, Marc Okrand, the creator of the Klingon language, has been known to intersperse various puns into the language. In particular, quite a few years ago several Klingon women, including myself, bugged him to come up with a Klingon word for "cleavage" -- as it is often considered a Klingon woman's most obvious visual attribute... It took about a year of bugging him, but he did finally come up with a word for it: "ngech"; it is derived from the word "valley between two mountains".

Here are a few others that you might enjoy:

HIja' - yes, true (made of Japanese "yes" which is pronounced like "hi" + German "ja")

qegh - barrel, vat for the storage of liquor (as in beer keg)

vIychorgh - juice, sap ("V-8" is a brand of vegetable juice drink. chorgh = 8)

'awje' - root beer (In Klingon, "je" after the nouns means "and", and so 'awje can be read "a w je" or "a and w". A&W is a famous brand of root beer)

and one of my favourites, suitable for Halloween...

'Iw - blood (As in some people's reaction to blood "Eeeew!")
posted by Jade Dragon at 7:39 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

other spanish... la parra da uva y el tiempo pasa (kinda .. grapevines make grapes and time pases/ time makes raisins)

this type of pun is frequently used in jokes. all my other top of the mind examples are pretty vulgar.
with the influx of English another similar thing has caught my attention...
theres lots of hybrid ones... like "what do you call a person that sells doors" - vendedor (sales person/ sells "doors" english)
what do you call a person that buys? - comprador (buyer/ buy "doors")
etc basically anything that ends in "dor"
(in spanish door is puerta, not dor, but using the dor as the english word door it makes the pun)

"como se llama una persona que cura los perros?" Doctor (pronounced Dog-tor to make a pun on english "dog)
posted by nzydarkxj at 11:25 PM on October 30, 2008

The Christian church is founded on a pun. Matthew 16:18:

καγω δε σοι λεγω οτι συ ει πετρος και επι ταυτη τη πετρα οικοδομησω μου την εκκλησιαν και πυλαι αδου ου κατισχυσουσιν αυτης

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter (petros), and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
posted by Casuistry at 11:55 PM on October 30, 2008

As others have pointed out, there even exists wordplay between languages.

Finnegan's Wake is a long succession of interlingual puns.

You know the children's game where you take turns saying "I one a dog turd" "I two a dog turd" and so on, where the aim is to make the other person say "I eight/ate a dog turd"?

Well, there's a French version where you take turns saying "Bread one" "Bread two" and so on. The aim is to make the other person say "Bread Seven" because it sounds like "Pinch me."

There's also a Greek version with the alphabet, but it's more indecent.
posted by ersatz at 6:19 AM on October 31, 2008

Serge Gainsbourg is all about the double entendres. France Gall claimed she didn't understand what she was singing about when she sang his song "Les Sucettes", which was on one level about lollipops and - not very subtly - also about oral sex.
posted by srah at 7:42 AM on October 31, 2008

Oh, come on, y'all. If the OP uses the "Daily Log" as an example, I think you're cleared to be indecent. Please?

In Spanish (at least the Mexican variety I learned), "to piss" is "mear" (pronounced mi AR). So when you need to take a leak, you can say, "Voy a mi arbolito" - "I'm going to my little tree".

Three levels to that one, if you're a guy. Great question and answers.
posted by McBearclaw at 10:42 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

While in Vienna, I once saw a hair salon called "Hair Gott", which translates literally as Hair God. This is a pun, since hair in english sounds like the german word Herr, which would make it "The Lord God".
posted by pwicks at 11:57 AM on October 31, 2008

Oh, come on, y'all. If the OP uses the "Daily Log" as an example, I think you're cleared to be indecent. Please?

Sure. You ask someone to say "alpha me, beta me, gamma me". "me" isn't pronounced the same way, but has the same meaning as in English in this case. Now, "gamma" is a homophone for "fuck", so you get someone to say "fuck me". Then you point at them and shout the story at any other kid within hearing range.

This is hilarious in the third grade and parents tend to disapprove as "fuck" can't be construed as anything other than their darling swearing, but it seems rather bland later on; that's why I didn't elaborate.

However, I just remembered the most obvious example of double entendre in Greek. It's the oracle of Pythia "Ήξεις, αφήξεις ουκ εν πολέμω θνήξεις". As the oracles were verbal, the sentence has two readings. If you read it with a comma placed after "αφήξεις", it means "You will go, you will come, you will not die at war". If you read it with a comma after "ουκ" you get ""You will go, you will come not, you will die at war".

I have a hunch that were she reborn, she'd either be an analyst or a consultant.
posted by ersatz at 7:42 PM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

There do seem to be cultural differences when it comes to whether puns (more neutrally, 'wordplay') are likely to be understood as jokes, or as rhetorical flourishes which can be inserted into a 'serious' context without affecting the tone. Reading over this list while in the mood to make reckless and unjustified generalisations, it strikes me that Ancient Greek puns, often real groaners to the modern ear, were particularly likely to be used without apparent comic intent. Plato's dialogues, for example, are full of really terrible puns, some of which are unambiguously comic, some seem simply playful, and others are as serious as Plato ever gets.
posted by Acheman at 4:09 AM on November 1, 2008

Another multi-language [Hindi-English] pun for the list:

In Hindi, banana = kela [pronounced kay-la], and alone = akela [pronounced a-kay-la].

Q: Why was the banana sad?
A: Because it was akela [a banana/alone].
posted by asras at 8:50 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

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