Notes on Selected Literary Terms

Metaphor and Simile

A metaphor is a figure of speech which directly compares two or more entities without the use of ‘like’ and ‘as’. Example: Mr John is a pillar to the school. A metaphor has two parts, namely; the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor contains the subject of the metaphor, which is the entity being described. The vehicle is that through whose agency the tenor is explained or understood. For instance, in the metaphor ‘Jesus is the way, the truth and the life’, ‘Jesus’ is the tenor while ‘the way, the truth and the life’ is the vehicle.

Metaphor has types some of which are dead metaphor, implied metaphor and extended metaphor. Dead metaphors are clichés. They are so called because they have become trite, hackneyed and ineffective through repeated use. They are also called frozen or historical metaphors. Examples are: The Youth are the leaders of tomorrow, the hand of a clock and body of an essay, among others.

An implied metaphor is one in which one of the objects being compared is not obviously mentioned. An example is: the soldier roared at the protesters. The soldier is being compared to a lion.

An extended metaphor is also known as conceit. It is also called a sustained metaphor. It is so called because the author sustains a particular metaphor for a considerable length of time and space in the work. This type of metaphor is usually long. A good example of an extended metaphor is seen in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when Romeo compares Juliet to the sun.

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!

Simile, on the other hand, uses ‘like’ and ‘as’ to compare two entities. An example is: Mr John is like a pillar to the school.

Epic Simile is an inverted form of extended metaphor. Hence it can be called an extended simile. It is a sustained comparison of events or things using the device of a simile. Another name for epic simile is Homeric simile, named after Homer, the author of The Iliad and Odyssey, works which contain examples of epic simile. An example of an epic simile can be gleaned from the following excerpts drawn from Homer’s Odyssey.

Weak as the doe that beds down her fawns in a mighty lion’s den – her newborn sucklings – then trails off to the mountain spurs and grassy bends to graze her fill, but back the lion comes to his own lair and the master deals both fawns a ghastly, bloody death. . .’

Personification is a figure of speech in which human attributes are ascribed to inanimate things. Example: The dagger knew too well that Caesar is dangerous.

Hyperbole is also known as exaggeration or overstatement. It is normally used for emphasis or to make an impression. Example: She waited for him a thousand years.

Antithesis is a figure of speech in which two opposing or contradictory ideas are expressed in a statement. A good example of antithesis is drawn from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ in the lines: ‘It may be that the gulf will wash us down, or that we will reach the happy isle.

Litotes is a form of understatement. It refers to the use of a negative expression to imply something positive. Example: You are not looking bad in that dress. This means that the person looks good in the dress.

Paradox is a form of contradiction. It is a figure of thought in which an idea at first consideration sounds absurd, nonsensical and stupid, but which makes sense when reflected upon deeply and philosophically.  An example is a statement by William Wordsworth which says: ‘The child is father of the man.

Synecdoche is the use of a part to infer the whole and, conversely, the use of a whole to refer to the part. Example: Many hands make light work. ‘Hands’ is a part of the body used to refer to the workers.

Metonymy is the use of a name closely associated with a person or institution instead of the real name. Example: Aso Rock has made a pronouncement. Aso Rock in the context above refers to the government of Nigeria.

Antonomasia is the substitution of an epithet or a title in place of a proper noun. It is also the use of a proper noun to suggest its most obvious quality or aspect. Example: Peter is a Scrooge (a very stingy person).

Irony is a trope in which meanings are realised in the opposite of what is said, done and expected. In dramatic irony, a character acts without being aware of the implications of his actions, whereas the audience knows. In verbal irony, the character says the exact opposite of what he or she intends. In situational irony, a character’s action brings about an opposite result or effect.

Epigram is a short witty statement. A witty statement is wise, intellectual, clever, ingenious and amusing. Example: To err is human; to forgive divine.

Epitaph is an inscription on a tombstone. It is also a poem written in memory of a deceased person. A good example is drawn from Eyoh Etim’s Songs of our Time in a poem entitled ‘Epitaph to a Dog’: Here lies gentle Billy (?1951-2010),/He created more problems/ In death than when alive.

Epigraph is a brief quotation at the beginning of a book. It is also an inscription on a building. An instance of an epigraph can be found in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, whose epigraph is drawn from W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ and reads: ‘Turning and turning in a widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things Fall Apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’

Allusion refers to a brief reference made to a person, thing or event in literature. Types of allusion include classical allusion, biblical allusion, literary allusion and historical allusion. Example: Don’t be a Lady Macbeth (literary allusion).

Allonym/pseudonym refer to the name assumed by a writer other than their original name. Allonymous work is one in which the writer uses another name instead of his real name.

Apostrophe is an address directed at someone who is absent but done in such a way that indicates that the person is present and can respond.

Invective refers to a poetic abuse or insult. Examples are knave, whoreson, proud, lily-livered and bitch, among others.

Inversion refers to the reversal in the order of an expression’s syntactic structure. An example is: I thee wed, which is an inversion of the structure, I wed thee. Shakespeare’s plays abound in inversions.

Onomatopoeia is a trope in which the sound of a word is suggestive of its meaning. Examples include words such as splash, groan, gong, crash and hiss.

Oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two semantically opposing words are used side by side to create a collocational clash. An example is seen in the expression: It was a happy sad reunion.

Pun is also referred to as paronomasia. It refers to a play on words that are homonymous, like sole/soul and week/weak. The author can also play on the different nuances of meaning associated with a particular word, say ‘lie’. This is also called an equivoque: the use of a single word or phrase which has two different meanings in contexts that demand the reader to think of the two meanings all at once.

Repetition is normally used for emphasis and for effect. Words and phrases could be repeated for emphasis.

Anaphora refers to the repetition of words and phrases at the beginning of a line of a poem. It is a form of parallelism. An example is seen in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s ‘Richard Cory’ in the lines: And he was always quietly arrayed/And he was always human when he talked.

Rhetorical question is a question asked for its literary effect, and not necessarily to elicit a response. Example: Where have all the good men gone?

Refrain is a rhythmic repetition of a line or a phrase usually at the end of each stanza. In Eyoh Etim’s Songs of our Time, the expression ‘Children are angels’ constitutes a refrain in a poem that goes by the same title.

Parallelism can be understood in two senses. One is grammatical and the other is literary. In the first instance, parallelism denotes the use of parallel structures in a work of art. Parallel structures are words and expressions that belong to the same grammatical unit, say present participles, to infinitives, singular and plural. For instance, there is parallelism in the expression: He came, he saw and he conquered. Parallelism can also be seen as anaphora, where similar words and expressions are consistently repeated in the initial position of a poem.

Sarcasm refers to remarks or comments that are meant to hurt the feeling of an individual or meant to show contempt. It is usually mocking in tone and ironic in style.

Kenning (periphrasis) is the use of indirect and circumlocutory speech or writing. It is usually descriptive and can be amusing in some instances. An instance of periphrasis is the expression ‘finny tribe’ for fish and ‘the long-contended honours of the head’ for the woman’s hair.

Paralipsis is the subtle and indirect way of mentioning or talking about something by saying that one does not want to talk about it. Example: I don’t want to talk about corruption in our polity.

Innuendo is a derogatory hint or reference to a person or something. It is a form of insinuation where the subject is not usually mentioned by name.

Hendiadys is a trope in which two semantically similar words are used with the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ for literary effect. Examples: rules and regulations, children and wards, parents and guardians. Another way of looking at Hendiadys is changing an adjective that should have qualified a noun into another noun. For instance, ‘glorious war’ becomes ‘glory and war’.

Malapropism is a form of solecism. Solecism is an erroneous or improper use of a language, especially by breaking rules of grammar and word meaning. In Malapropism, a word is mistakenly used in place of another by virtue of their similarities in pronunciation. The trope is named after Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals, noted for making the same mistakes. The result is usually one of humour. An example is seen in the expression: he is the very pineapple of politeness, where the author uses ‘pineapple’ instead of ‘pinnacle’.

Zeugma: Zeugma has a Greek origin which means ‘yoking’. It is used to describe a linguistic structure in which a single word, say a verb or an adjective, ‘stands in the same grammatical relation with two or more nouns or nominal, but with an apparent shift in its significance’ (Abrams and Harpham, 2012). The shift is usually one of literal and figurative meaning. Examples:

  1. John lost his temper and his coat.
  2. He stained her honour and her dress.

In the first expression, the verb ‘lost’ relates with the noun ‘temper’ and the nominal ‘his coat’. But the relationship that the verb has with ‘temper’ is figurative (idiomatic) while its relationship with ‘his coat’ is literal.

In the second example, the verb ‘stained’ relates literally with ‘her dress’ and figuratively with ‘honour’.

Syllepsis: Syllepsis has the same structure with zeugma. The only difference is that in syllepsis, the relationship to the other grammatical components is limited to just one of the two categories. Example:

  1. We heard thunder and lightning.
  2. The boys saw war and hunger.

In the first expression, the verb ‘heard’ only relates to ‘thunder’ since lightning cannot be heard. It is used for literary effect. Also, ‘saw’ collocates with ‘war’ but not with ‘hunger’ which is an abstract noun.

Chiasmus: In Greek, Chiasmus means ‘crossover’. It refers to a sequence of two phrases or clauses which are parallel in syntax, but which reverse the order of the corresponding words (Abrams & Harpham, 346). Examples:

  1. Don’t let a fool kiss you, nor a kiss fool you.
  2. The years to come seem a waste of breath, a waste of breath the years to come.

Pathos: Pathos refers to the deliberate evocation of sympathetic feelings or emotions in a literary work. A good example of pathos can be gleaned from this passage culled from Eyoh Etim’s Past Echoes:

Amidst his sorrow, he pictured himself lying dead and everyone weeping over him. His body had just been brought back from the stream where he had fallen over the cliff. He had broken his neck and that was it.

Their wailing rose into the tense atmosphere and could be heard in a distance. Everyone who heard of the sad news would rush to see things for himself. They would recall how humble and submissive he used to be, how gentle and meek he was and how he used to greet everyone. At school, everyone would remember his last words and where and when they saw him last before the ugly incident.

From the above passage, it can be said that pathos is a scene or a passage designed to evoke feelings of pity, sorrow, sympathy or tantrums.

Pathetic Fallacy: Pathetic fallacy is a literary device in which human emotions and feelings are ascribed to inanimate things. Examples are ‘crying trees’ and ‘weeping pillows’.

Meoisis: Meoisis is ‘lessening’ in Greek. It is a form of understatement which deliberately presents that which is serious in an ironically playful tone in order to downplay the seriousness of the situation. An instance of Meoisis in contemporary parlance is where someone loses a huge sum of money and refers to it as ‘change’. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Meoisis is reflected in the dying statement of Mercutio after being mortally wounded by Tybalt. He says: ‘I am hurt/ . . . I am sped . . ./ Ay, a scratch, a scratch. . .’. Here, a deadly injury is being called a mere scratch.

Bathos: Bathos is known as ‘depth’ in Greek. It is the unintentional descent in literature from the serious to the trivial or the ridiculous. Another name for bathos is anticlimax. Examples:

  1. For God, for country and for Yale!
  2. Here thou, great Anna! Whom three realms obey,/Dost sometimes counsels take – and sometimes tea.
  3. He lost his wife, his car and his dog.
  4. Look to your house, your daughter and your bags

Synaesthesia: Synaesthesia refers to the description of one mode of sensation in terms of another. In synaesthesia, colour attributes could be ascribed to sounds and odour to colour. Examples are ‘sweet music’, ‘bright sounds’, ‘loud dress’, among others.

Transferred Epithet: An epithet is a qualifier or a modifier which consists mostly of adjectives or adjectival. It is said to be transferred when it modifies that which it shouldn’t or is not expected to. This is usually done, however, for literary effects. Examples of transferred epithets are found in the sentences below:

  1. Temi had a sleepless night.
  2. Edet had an unhappy marriage.
  3. He was put behind cruel bars.

In expression (i), it is not the night that was sleepless but Temi, who could not sleep. In (ii), marriage in itself cannot be unhappy but the people involved in it make it so or are the ones who are unhappy in it. In (iii), the bars in themselves are not cruel but the people who made them and the purpose for which they were made.

Cataphora: Cataphora refers to the use of a pronoun or other linguistic units before the noun or nominal to which it refers. Cataphora is mostly used for rhetorical effects in works of literature. Example:

  1. She maybe young, but Nonso is not stupid.
  2. He may be over 80, but Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’O is very strong and agile.

In (i), ‘she’ is a cataphoric reference to ‘Nonso’ while in (ii), ‘he’ is a cataphoric reference to ‘Ngugi wa Thiong’O’.

Epanalepsis: Epanalepsis refers to a word that begins and ends an expression. It is often used for literary emphasis. Example:

  1. Nothing will happen to me; nothing.
  2. I am really tired of your excuses; I am really really tired.

Eponym: Eponym is the noun form of the word ‘eponymous’ which in literature refers to a work of art whose title is the same as its central character(s). At the same time, an eponymous character bears the same name as the title of the work. Examples of eponymous works are William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. An eponym then refers to a name, real or fictitious, which has become the basis for identifying another item or thing. For instance, Rome is the eponym of Romulus.

Epizeuxis: Epizeuxis is a form of repetition in which a word or phrase is repeated in quick succession in an expression. A good example is found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when Nurse says: ‘O woe! O woeful, woeful day!’

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2 thoughts on “Notes on Selected Literary Terms

  1. Thanks for the critical research that resulted in this. The Guild of the Literati will be ecumenically blessed to have this. Edeke, E.O

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