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This is from the transcript of an episode titled Leela and the Genestalk (WARNING: very badly formatted wiki page) of the popular cartoon series Futurama.

(Background: a character named Mom has created a flying laboratory on a fake cloud to perform genetic experiments which are illegal on the ground.)
Mom: Yes, you've discovered my floating genetic engineering facility. Our experiments would be illegal on Earth, but up here, I'm above the law. (Laughs)
Son1: (smirks) Nice pun, Mother.
Mom: (angrily) It's not a pun, it's a play on words! (slaps Son1) [video]

A few minutes later...

Mom: You've got some freaky DNA, and I want to see what's in your genes. [genesjeans]
(Son1 snickers)
Mom: (angrily slaps Son1) Genes with a "G"! (sudden realisation) Ow! Now, that's a pun.

Is Mom correct in the first scenario? Can the phrase above the law in that context not be considered a pun?

As far as the definition goes:

  • a clever and amusing use of a word or phrase with two meanings, or of words with the same sound but different meanings. (Collins)
  • a humorous use of a word or phrase that has several meanings or that sounds like another word. (Cambridge)
  • the usually humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound. (Merriam-Webster)

Disclaimer

I have already asked a (10k only) similar question some time ago which got deleted. There the phrase in question was building a road to bring two (enemy) states closer.

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    Remember that Mom is notoriously short-tempered and obnoxious, so that it's entirely in character for her to contradict her son just to be argumentative. – chrylis Oct 5 '17 at 19:47
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    The M-W Learner's Dictionary gives the broader sense: 'a humorous way of using a word or phrase so that more than one meaning is suggested'. (emphasis mine) M-W itself is inconsistent, following the definition mentioned above with the example 'She's a skillful pilot whose career has—no pun intended—really taken off.'. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 6 '17 at 11:03
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Oxford defines a pun quite tightly as

A joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words which sound alike but have different meanings.

‘the Railway Society reception was an informal party of people of all stations (excuse the pun) in life’

The mishearing of genes as jeans fits the definition of a pun: it relies on the similar sound. An example of different meanings is given in the quote above, where “station”=“status in life” is paired with “railway station”. Another might be “his breath came in short pants,” which might conjure a really confused image.

Above the law is literalising a metaphor. Normally, it means that one is metaphorically above the law and not subject to it; in the use in the question, it is made literal: the clouds are literally above the law’s application. It doesn't rely on different meanings — above still means “above”, whether the use is metaphorical or literal.

Another example might be Hamlet's “sea of troubles”. That's a metaphor (actually a mixed metaphor because you can’t take arms against it). But the meaning is still that of a sea, constantly changing and perhaps threatening. A metaphor can be treated literally, but the sea is still the sea: that’s actually what makes it a metaphor.

Thus Mom is right. It's not a word with a similar sound which is deliberately confused, and it’s not treating different meanings of a single word. It is a play on words.

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    On the subject of confused images there was a quote in the news yesterday,'I am quite prepared to sit in jail, standing up for my rights'; which left me with the image of someone bobbing up and down repeatedly, behind bars. – Nigel J Oct 5 '17 at 10:36
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    Aren't the separate literal and figurative meanings of a word different? Many dictionaries list common figurative meanings.this would then fit the literal interpretation of 'pun' – Mitch Oct 5 '17 at 11:41
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    One could argue that Oxford's stations functions similarly to the OP's above. The stations are still stations, whether the use is, as you say, metaphorical or literal. – Lawrence Oct 5 '17 at 13:42
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    @Lawrence: I agree with your notion. And to further extend it, "above the law" also seems to fit the second part of the pun definition: "the fact that there are words which sound alike but have different meanings" Nowhere does it mention that the words have to be spelled differently (they just have to at least sound alike, if spelled differently). – Flater Oct 5 '17 at 14:50
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    @Lawrence Oxford's "stations" are not the same. One is a place where a railway train calls; the other is what is now termed status. – Andrew Leach Oct 5 '17 at 17:17
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Well, according to Wikipedia, there are different types of pun.

The second (genes vs jeans) is a homophonic pun, ie involving two words which sound the same. So, the second example is definitely a pun. But what about the first?

The second type of pun described in that article are homographic (same letters) or heteronymic (different meaning) puns. One of the examples they give is:

The statement "Being in politics is just like playing golf: you are trapped in one bad lie after another" puns on the two meanings of the word lie as "a deliberate untruth" and as "the position in which something rests"

So, we have a phrase "bad lie", which has two different meanings, and therein lies the pun. This seems indistinguishable from the joke around "above the law" in the first example: "above the law" also has two meanings: "literally above the area where it is illegal" or "beyond the reach of legal mechanisms".

So, I'd have to say, based on that wikipedia article, that the first example is also a pun, but it's a different kind of pun. Mom was wrong.

  • Not a reputable source – AmE speaker Oct 5 '17 at 11:30
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    @Clare Do you mean that page, or the whole of wikipedia? Is there any particular aspect of it you'd take issue with? – Max Williams Oct 5 '17 at 11:45
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    @MaxWilliams It would actually seem from reading Wikipedia further that since the words have both the same spelling and pronunciation that this is a homonymic pun rather than homographic. I found this source: books.google.com/books?id=kE2k36XAkv4C&pg=PA925 which claims: "At the most basic level, there are two kinds of wordplays, homonymic puns and polysemantic puns. . . . The homonymic pun uses different words that are pronounced and/or spelled in identical or similar fashion." – Darren Ringer Oct 5 '17 at 14:20
  • @Clare If you check the problems with the ODO reference partly given by Andrew above, you'll see that Wikipedia is the more felicitous here. It agrees with Collins, CDO, M-WLD and RHK Webster's. M-W has the same issue as ODO in that it specifies 'a word with two meanings' but gives examples involving 'a phrase with two meanings'. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 6 '17 at 11:14

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