Reply to "Plays on"

prashobhini posted:


"The story plays on the idea of perspectives ..."

What does plays on mean here exactly? According oxford advanced learners dictionary the phrasal verb 'play on' means 'to take advantage of somebody’s feelings, etc.' and the synonym listed is 'exploit'.

Hello, Prashobhini,

Exploiting something (making use of or deriving benefit from something) needn't involve taking advantage of somebody's feelings. Ideas can be exploited.

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) gives many more definitions of "play on" than your learner's dictionary does. Still, "make use of / exploit" fits the best.


to play upon ——  (also to play on ——)

 1. intransitive. to play on (also upon) words (also the word): to pun; to make a play on words.Cf. quot. 1597 at sense 12b.

1600   W. Shakespeare Merchant of Venice iii. v. 41   How euery foole can play vpon the word.  
1683   D. A. Whole Art Converse 125   They play often upon words.
1734   T. Cooke Andrian i. iv. 95 (note)    Our Poet often plays upon Words; and this Sort of Wit we find in the 23d Verse of the Prologue.
1861   T. Wright Ess. Archæol. II. xxiii. 231   The wit or ingenuity of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers was chiefly exerted in playing upon words.
1876   G. O. Trevelyan Life & Lett. Macaulay I. iii. 134   He did not play upon words as a habit.
1978   P. Barolsky Infinite Jest iv. 97   On giving the cardinalate to the very young Innocenzo Cibo, Pope Leo, who himself was made a cardinal at an early age by Pope Innocent VIII, played on words when he remarked, ‘What I received from Innocent, I repay to Innocent.’
2004   Times of India (Nexis) 6 June   ‘The member from Bolpur will not get much chance to speak,’ Vajpayee remarked in his inimitable style playing on the word ‘Bol-pur’.

 2. intransitive. To make use of, take advantage of (a quality or disposition in another person).

1603   W. Shakespeare Hamlet iii. ii. 352   You would play vpon mee, You would search the very inward part of my hart.
1603   W. Shakespeare Hamlet iii. ii. 358   Zownds do you thinke Iam [sic] easier to be pla'yd On, then a pipe?
1695   J. Collier Misc. upon Moral Subj. 70   To flatter the Vanity, and play upon the Weakness of those in Power.
1775   R. B. Sheridan Rivals ii. i. 31   You rely upon the mildness of my temper—you do, you Dog! you play upon the weakness of my disposition!
1794   W. Godwin Caleb Williams I. ix. 194   Mr. Tyrrel play upon the fears of his prisoner.
1809   B. H. Malkin tr. A. R. Le Sage Adventures Gil Blas II. v. i. 296   We fancied that he meant to play upon our fears.
1825   J. Neal Brother Jonathan 120   In short, I have been willing to see, if such a man as you, could be played upon, so grossly; week after week; without learning the truth; by a—you are not angry, I hope?
1870   J. E. T. Rogers Hist. Gleanings 2nd Ser. 116   It is..natural that shrewd politicians should play on the credulity of their dupes.
1989   ‘C. Roman’ Foreplay ii. 14   Now I know his weakness and will learn to play on it.

3. intransitive. To return fancifully or parodically to. Obsolete. rare.

1605   W. Camden Remaines ii. 14   Giraldus Cambrensis..played vpon these verses.

4. intransitive. To make use of (a thing), exploit. 

1646   Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica i. ix. 35   Playing much upon the simile [printed smile], or illustrative argumentation.