Oxford is famous for punting, but it is also renowned for its wordplay and puns (well, it is the home of the Oxford English Dictionary). Countless lexicon-loving academics have shown their delight in double meanings and the sheer joy of mucking about with words.
Oxford’s coat of arms is a pun on the origins of the city’s name. A ford on the river Thames for Oxen. To the left and right of the Ox there is a black elephant and a green beaver. These represent two important members of the court of Elizabeth I, at the time when she granted the city its coat of arms: Sir Francis Knollys (the Elephant) and Sir Henry Norreys (the Beaver). You can spot the Ox in all sorts of places, including on the city’s bins.
Have you got a craving for carvings? The 17 magnificent heads peering out between the Sheldonian and Broad Street date from 1662, but the original stone created by William Byrd has crumbled and this is their third incarnation from 1972, by local sculptor Michael Black. On the back of the head nearest the Sheldonian, just by the gate, he hid the small figure of a bird. It’s a pun on Byrd and the designer of the building, Christopher Wren.
The College That Nose Its Name
The name of Brasenose College is a form of wordplay. The word is taken from a brass knocker that used to hang on one of the doors of an earlier incarnation of this seat of learning. When it was founded in 1509, the college celebrated this ‘brass nose’ in its name, even though it had been removed by some revolting students (!). When the prized knocker was eventually found in 1890, the college purchased an entire house to obtain the door furniture that now adorns the dining hall.
Speak Too Spoon
The warden of New College from 1862 inspired so much word play that his name is used to describe it: Spoonerisms are called after William Archibald Spooner who was notoriously absent minded and got letters of words confused to create topsy-turvey phrases. See if you can work out the original phrases from these:
● The Lord is a shoving Leopard
● You have hissed the mystery lectures and tasted two worms
● A lack of pies
● It's roaring with pain
Some, maybe all, of these were made up by students, but you get the idea.
Corpus Christi is home to ancient and contemporary puns. It was founded in 1517 by Richard Foxe and Hugh Oldham. The college coat of arms features a pelican (a Christian symbol) and three owls. These refer to the pronunciation of Oldham’s name as ‘Oweldham’. An early map of the grounds is also said to feature a fox as a pun on the name of the main founder.
Alice in Punderland
Charles Ludwidge Dodgson loved puns. He’s better known by his pen-name Lewis Carroll, which itself is a play on words. He created the pen-name by translating part of his name into Latin as Carolus Ludovicus, then reversing it into English. His famous books about Alice are awash with word play. We even meet Oxford’s favourite shelled reptile: The Mock Turtle (itself a play on words) tells Alice he called his teacher Tortoise. Why? “Because he taught us.”.
Dodgson’s nickname for himself was the Dodo, because of the stuttering way he uttered his name. A stained-glass window in Christ Church dining hall celebrates the characters he created, and includes a dodo, representing the author.