Issue 194, page 1

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Literary Devices

The material in Spotlight is sometimes inspired by an e-mail message from a reader.  That is the case this week.  Graeme McRae wrote us about zeugma, and that set off a chain reaction of thoughts about other similar devices.  But we'll start with that one.

Zeugma is Greek, as most of the names for literary devices are, having been born in the ancient Greek tradition of rhetoric.  Zeugma came to English from Latin.  The Romans, being Grecophiles, borrowed the word from the Greeks, and in Greek it means "a yoking or joining".  And to employ zeugma as a literary device is to "use a word to modify or govern two or more words, although its use is grammatically or logically correct with only one", as in "During the race he broke the record and his leg."  The reader who wrote us about zeugma was prompted to ask about it by the mention on NPR (National Public Radio here in the U.S.) of the couplet "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana".  We did not think that this was technically zeugma, for the verb flies in the first sentence becomes a noun in the second, and like shifts from an adverb to a verb.  Instead, we think this is merely a pun.

Zeugma's brother is known as syllepsis, which in Greek means "a taking together", and it is "a construction in which one word seems to be in the same relation to two or more other words, but in fact it is not."  Willard Espy (author of the delightful The Garden of Eloquence, A Rhetorical Bestiary*) confesses that he does not see the difference between syllepsis and zeugma.  He cites the following examples:

syllepsis: "In his lectures, he leaned heavily on his desk and stale jokes."

zeugma: "The 1981 election proved a lot less than it cost." 

Zeugma dates in English from 1586, while syllepsis first turns up in Henry Peacham's Garden of Eloquence of 1577**.  Espy based his Garden of Eloquence on Peacham's work, and he even includes some of Peacham's text in is work.  We'll leave syllepsis and zeugma at that!

There is actually a term for "a figure of speech in which the word that should come last is placed first" and it's not poor writing.  It is, instead, hysteron proteron, which in Greek means "hinder foremost".  Some of the examples that our dear Mr. Espy gives are "The suspect was charged with murder and rape", "The new drug will ward off death and heart attacks", and, from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: "Th'Antoniad, the Egyptian admiral, with all their sixty, fly and turn the rudder."

Another literary term of which we are fond is synathroesmus.  In Greek it means "collection", but in English it refers to "the piling up of adjectives", as in these Espian examples:  

He's a proud, haughty, consequential, turned-up-nosed peacock. 

- Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby


Of all the bete, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on the human stage, that thing last night beat - as far as the story and acting went - and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsyturviest, tuneless, scrannelpipiest - tongs and boniest - doggerel of sounds I ever endured the deadliness of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest, as far as its sound went.

  - John Ruskin 

[we just love that one!]

The last device we'll discuss today is one that most of our readers will have heard of: sarcasmus or sarcasm.  It comes from Greek "tearing flesh; gnashing teeth".  A portion of the inimitable H.W. Fowler's discussion of sarcasm's meaning also explains its derivation.

The essence of sarcasm is the intention of giving pain by (ironical or other) bitter words. 

- Modern English Usage

We particularly like this example of sarcasm, from acerbic historian Philip Guedalla:

No picture of life in Calais was too ludicrous to be believed in Dover; that is one of the advantages of being an island race. 

- Supers and Supermen

Let us defer a lengthy discussion of the precise differences between sarcasm and irony for another time!

*You can order a used copy of Espy's book from

**You can also buy a new copy of Peacham's book from 

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