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  • Writer's pictureSean Callery

Pun times in Oxford

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Oxford loves puns and wordplay. Centuries of lexicon-loving academics exploring and enjoying the intricacies of our language have fostered delight in the double meanings of many words. You can see evidence of this on the city’s streets.

So, let’s talk punning (not punting) in Oxford: here are ten instances of wordplay for you to discover in the city.

1 Cross word

Oxford’s coat of arms is a pun on the origins of the city’s name: it stands near a ford for oxen, the cattle who crossed the Thames (known as the Isis here because … well, Oxford plays with words). To the sides of the ox in the centre of the coat of arms are a black elephant and a green beaver. These represent two members of the court of Elizabeth I at the time when she granted the city its coat of arms: Sir Francis Knollys, who famously had huge ears (OK I made that up) and Sir Henry Norreys (insert your own beaver joke here). You can spot the ox in all sorts of places, including on the city’s bins.

The City of Oxford's coat of arms featuring an ox, which is used all over Oxford, including on the city's bins.

2 Bird play

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 their third incarnation dates from 1972, created 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 (geddit?).

One of the 17 majestic heads facing Broad Street from the Sheldonian featuring a tiny wren.

3 Oh duck!

Put your best foot Oxford (OK I’ll cut out the home-made word play now) to the other side of the Sheldonian. This facade, which is actually the main entrance, has many carved references to royalty, Wren and the benefactor who paid for the building: Gilbert Sheldon. Among these is a pair of ducks, which are thought to be shelducks: a pun on the name of the man who paid for the building and whose name is prominently displayed.

The main entrance to the Sheldonian with a detail of it coat of arms featuring shelducks on the right-hand side.

4 Square up

Scoot back to Broad Street and admire the front of the Clarendon building looking up to the square shapes descending from the entablature along the top of the wall. These are stylised versions of the ox bones often found below the doric friezes of ancient Rome (possibly as reminders of mortality). They are known as bucrania and feature heavily in Neoclassical architecture (such as here). And, guess what, this may be an ‘ox’ pun.

The Clarendon in Oxford.

A detail taken of the Clarendon showing stylised Ox bones .

5 Grotesque names

Nearby is Turl Street, home to Exeter College, whose walls proudly boast the name of its first female rector: Marilyn Butler. This distinguished writer and academic took up the post in 1983, and her name is now carved in the form of grotesques as follows: Marigold, Archer, Roundel, Illuminati, Lion, Yew tree, Neptune (for Marilyn), followed by her surname as Bells, Unicorn, Twins, Lamb and Flag (an Oxford pub), Episcopal crosier and Rumplestiltskin. By the way, not all heads of Oxford colleges are called rectors: you will also find deans, masters, presidents, principals, provosts and wardens. I told you Oxford loves words!

The external facade of Exeter College, Turl Street with its famous grotesques looking out above the top windows.

6 A lack of pies

Now we’re off to New College whose warden 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.

New College chapel (copyright Olaf Davis, Creative Commons).

7 Too witty

Sticking with colleges, 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.

Corpus Christi quad and its coat of arms featuring a pelican (images left and centre copyright Creative Commons, right Sean Callery).

8 We shell overcome

Staying with Corpus Christi, the college hosts an annual tortoise race for pets from various Oxford colleges. The names of recent competitors are a triumph of punnery. Choose from Aristurtle, Tortellini and Tortilla.

A crowd of students at Corpus Christi enjoying the annual tortoise race (copyright Edward Hart, Creative Commons).

9 Joy story

Colleges hold regular dinners for graduates and their guests, known as Gaudies, from the Latin for joy. The Queen's College hosts one at the beginning of the new year called the Needle and Thread. As part of the event, the college bursar threads a needle into each guest’s jacket as a reminder to be thrifty in the coming year. This custom is thought to be a pun on the college founder’s name, Robert de Eglesfield, because the French phrase ‘aiguilles et fils’ means needles and threads.

Queens College quad (copyright Emma Reynolds, Creative Commons).

10 Into the underworld

Finally we reach that great pun fan, Charles Ludwidge Dodgson. He’s better known as Lewis Carroll, itself a play on words as he created a 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 that he called his teacher Tortoise. Why? "Because he taught us."

Christ Church dining hall has one of his puns on display. Dodgson’s nickname for himself was the Dodo, because of the stuttering way he uttered his name. A stained glass window celebrates the characters he created, and includes a dodo, representing the author.

The window in Christ Church - you can see the dodo in the bottom corner of the top right window (copyright Steve Roth).

Got a craving for carvings? Oxford is in a league of its stone (sorry!) for wordplay: see all this and more on my tours:


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