Sed scitis esse notissimum ridiculi genus, cum aliud exspectamus, aliud dicitur: hic nobismet ipsis noster error risum movet: quod si admixtum est etiam ambiguum, fit salsius; ut apud Novium videtur esse misericors ille, qui iudicatum duci videt: percontatur ita: “quanti addictus?” “mille nummum.” Si addidisset tantummodo “ducas licet”; esset illud genus ridiculi praeter exspectationem; sed quia addidit “nihil addo, ducas licet”; addito ambiguo, altero genere ridiculi, fuit, ut mihi quidem videtur, salsissimus. hoc tum est venustum, cum in altercatione arripitur ab adversario verbum et ex eo, ut a Catulo in Philippum, in eum ipsum aliquid, qui lacessivit, infligitur. sed cum plura sint ambigui genera, de quibus est doctrina quaedam subtilior, attendere et aucupari verba oportebit; in quo, ut ea, quae sint frigidiora, vitemus, (etenim cavendum est, ne arcessitum dictum putetur), permulta tamen acute dicemus. alterum genus est, quod habet parvam verbi immutationem, quod in littera positum Graeci vocant παρονομασίαν, ut “Nobiliorem, mobiliorem” Cato; aut, ut idem, cum cuidam dixisset “eamus deambulatum” et ille “quid opus fuit de?” “immo vero” inquit “quid opus fuit te?” aut eiusdem responsio illa “si tu et adversus et aversus impudicus es.” etiam interpretatio nominis habet acumen, cum ad ridiculum convertas, quam ob rem ita quis vocetur; ut ego nuper Nummium divisorem, ut Neoptolemum ad Troiam, sic illum in campo Martio nomen invenisse; atque haec omnia verbo continentur.
(Cicero, De Oratore 2.255-257)
You know already, however, that the most familiar of these is exemplified when we are expecting to hear a particular phrase, and something different is uttered. In this case our own mistake even makes us laugh ourselves. But, if there be also an admixture of equivocation, the jest is rendered more pungent: as, in that play of Novius, the man is apparently moved by compassion when, on seeing a condemned debtor taken away, he earnestly inquires the amount of the judgement. He is told, ‘A thousand sesterces.’ Had he then gone on to say merely, ‘You may take him away,’ his rejoinder would have belonged to the unexpected kind, but what he actually said was, ‘No advance from me ; you may take him away,’ whereby he brought in an element of equivocation, a different category of the laughable, the result, in my opinion at any rate, being piquancy in perfection*. This playing on words is most delightful when, during a wrangle, a word is snatched from an antagonist and used to hurl a shaft at the assailant himself, as was done by Catulus against Philippus. But since equivocation is of numerous kinds, and the teaching as to these is somewhat abstruse, we shall have to be watchful and lie in wait for the words: in this way, while avoiding the feebler retorts (for we must see to it that our bon-mot be not thought forced), we shall still find ourselves delivering very many a pointed remark.
Another category, which uses a slight change in spelling, the Greeks call ‘assonance,’ when the variation is in a letter or two; for example, one surnamed ‘the Noble’ was referred to by Cato as ‘the Mobile,’ or again Cato said to a certain man, ‘Let us go for a deambulation,’ and, on the other asking, ‘What need of the “de — ?”,’ Cato rejoined, ‘Nay, rather, what need of thee?’ or take that other answer of the same Cato’s, ‘Whether you turn hither or thither, you are filthy.’ There is point also in the explanation of a name, when you make fun of the reason for a man being called as he is, as I said the other day of Nummius, the voters’ paymaster, that he had found a name in the Election Field**, as Neoptolemus had done at Troy. Now all such jests hinge upon a word.
* The piquant equivocation must lurk in ‘nihil addo,’ which may mean, ‘I say no more,’ or (at an auction) ‘I bid no more.’
** Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, received the name of Neoptolemus, as being ‘a new-comer to the (Trojan) war.’ Caesar facetiously derives the name ‘Nummius’ from the coins (nummi) which its bearer had distributed, in the course of his duties as bribery agent at elections.
(tr. Edward William Sutton, with some of his notes)