Visual Puns

Like the verbal pun the visual pun is a rich and complex topic. A thing that we see (rather than hear) can have more than one meaning. Only two points will be made here. (1) There are two basic types: those that require a title or accompanying text and those that do not. The text may explain the illustration or the illustration may be a pun on the text. (2) Some visual puns are optical illusions.

visual pun

"Greedy Little Pig," Harpers New Monthly Magazine, March 1858.

The chubby boy has just finished eating; his shadow forms a pig. No title is really necessary.


visual pun

C. Allan Gilbert, "All is Vanity," 1892.

A woman sits before her dressing table (a vanity). Her head, the mirror, her reflected image, and the cloth and articles on the vanity form a skull. The title isn't necessary, although it emphasizes the pun on vanity.


visual pun

Anon, "The Bald Breasts," c. 1905.

The joke is obvious with or without the title.


visual pun

Untitled Illustration, William Makepeace Thackeray, The Irish Sketch Book (London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1887).

The title "Bosom Buddies" would make it a visual pun.


visual pun

"Clerical Error," Coles Phillips, 1908.


visual pun

"Herod," attributed to Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 16th century.

Without the title this appears to be just a weird painting of a man's head and neck composed of the bodies of children, but the title reminds us of Herod the Great and the biblical story of "The Massacre of the Innocents." Supposedly, he ordered the killing of all young male children to prevent the loss of his throne to the newborn King of the Jews.


visual pun

This optical illusion can be found on many Web sites. It show a young woman looking to the left and an old woman looking down. The young woman's chin and jaw are the old woman's nose. Giving this illusion a title such as "Beauty," "Youth," or "The Passage of Time" would make it a visual pun.


illustration right side upillustration up side down

Gustave Verbeek worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for Harper's Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. In 1902 his comic strip "The Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo" first appeared in The New York Herald. After reading the multi-panel cartoon, the reader would turn it upside down and read it again with a different set of pictures and text.

On the left a child in a boat is being menaced by a large fish just before reaching safety on an island with trees. On the right the panel has been rotated and we see a large bird (roc) grasping the child in its beak.


visual pun

George Ade was an American playwright and writer of short humorous pieces called Fables in Slang.

Somehow I always like to think

Of GEORGEADE as a Summer Drink,

Sparkling and cool, with just a Tang

Of Pleasant Effervescent Slang


Oliver Herford, Confessions of a Caricaturist (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917), 58-59.



visual pun

Thomas Hood puns on the words going ("traveling" or "dying") and knots.


visual pun

Thomas Hood's pun is purely visual. The men can use the balls and club to stop the horse. The horse is a metaphor for a runaway or run-on sentence which can be stopped with punctuation marks.



Below are some more visual puns by Thomas Hood.

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See also

A Modest Defense of the Pun

Introduction to Thomas Hood