Figures of Speech
last update: 28 July 2020
Quiz trivia will often include questions about figures of speech, or intentional deviations from ordinary language.
"Das kommt mir spanisch vor" is a German idiom most nearly approximate to which English equivalent? Answer - (That seems Spanish to me) is the same as That's (all) Greek to me
Which two-word English phrase, suggestive of a European relative, is synonymous with a candid but benevolent adviser to critic? Answer - Dutch uncle
What is the English equivalent of the French idiom "filer a l'Anglais"? Answer - French leave
Figures of speech can be schemes (a change in the usual sentence structure) or tropes (which play with the meaning of words). Some phrases can involve both.
The Wikipedia article includes a very extensive list of different forms of figures of speech, most of them highly specialised and a bit academic.
It also calls figures of speech 'rhetorical figures', which tells us that the objective is to persuade. The basic idea was to first understand how the rules of grammar can be used to symbolise knowledge and express thoughts. The next step was to use thought, analysis and logic (and dialectic, or the confrontation of different points of view) to produce factual statements, remove contradictions, and compose sound arguments (i.e. deductive reasoning). The third element of the trivium, the ancient art of discourse, was rhetoric, the use of language to communicate, instruct and persuade.
Cherry-picking through the long list of schemes and tropes listed in the Wikipedia article on figures of speech, I've picked the following.
Starting with schemes:-
Alliteration is the conspicuous repetition of identical consonant sounds as in "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers", and just as a reminder a 'peck' is old measure of dry volume equivalent to 2 dry gallons or 16 pints (about 9 litres). Another well known alliteration is "She sells sea shells by the sea shore".
Adynaton is a hyperbole, as in "I've told you a million times".
Anaphora is a rhetorical device where a sequence of words is repeated at the beginning of neighbouring classes, thus lending emphasis. "I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King Jr. (American, 1929-1968) is the perfect example, where he repeats "I have a dream" at the beginning of each sentence.
Anthimeria is where a noun is used as a denominal verb or a verb becomes a deverbal noun. Examples abound, with the noun 'book' being used as a verb in "Let's book the hotel", etc., which is a process called 'verbification'.
Antimetabole is where words are repeated in successive clauses, but the order is transposed. It has produced some of the most powerful quotes of all time, namely:-
"Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno" (One for all, all for one)
"Eat to live, not live to eat"
"When the going gets tough, the tough get going"
"We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us", Malcolm X (American, 1925-1965)
"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" J.F. Kennedy (American, 1917.1963).
Epistrophe (antistrophe) is repetition of the same words at the end of successive phrases, as in "… government of the people, by the people, for the people, …" in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Antithesis is the use of opposites to create a contrasting effect. Again this has produced some important quotes from history namely:-
"Man proposes, God disposes"
"Many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14)
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, ...", Charles Dickens (English, 1812-1870) in a A Tale of Two Cities
"He who desires peace, should prepare for war", Vegetius (Roman, 4th C AD)
Assonance is repetition of vowel sounds, as in "Smooth move!" or "Please leave!".
Asyndeton is where conjunctions are omitted, as in "Veni, vidi, vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered), or "Quickly, resolutely, he strode into the bank".
Diacope means repeating a word or phrase with a few intervening words, as in "Bond, James Bond" or "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!".
Epanalepsis means repeating the initial part of a sentence at the end, as in "The king is dead, long live the king!" and "Nice to see you, to see you, nice".
Litotes are a kind of verbal irony in the way an understatement involves stating a negative to affirm a positive (but not always). Some great examples are:-
"Not bad" means "Good" (in French "pas mal")
"Meno male" ("less bad" in Italian) means "Much better" or "Thank goodness!"
"Maybe not" means "Totally unacceptable"
"Not trivial" means "Very complex"
"I don't hate it" means "It's fine"
"He is not unfamiliar with …" means "He is well acquainted with …"
"It would not be unwelcome …" means "We would welcome …"
"Ce n'est pas bête!" ("It's not stupid" in French) means "Clever"
"No es nada tonto" (It's not at all foolish" in Spanish) means "Clever"
"You are not wrong" means "You are right"
"She's no beauty queen" means "She is ugly"
"I am not as young as I used to be" means "I'm old"
Onomatopoeia are phonetically similar words, or words that suggest a particular sound, as in animal sounds such as 'buzz' for bees, 'meow' for cats, or 'moo' for cows. However, it also includes such words as 'bang', 'tick tock' and "Wham!"
Pun is a type of word play that exploits similar sounding words for a humorous effect (based upon offering multiple interpretations). There are lots of possibilities, and here is just one, changing "non-profit institution" to "non-prophet institution".
Spoonerism is a speech error where consonants and vowels are switched around between two words, as in the change of "Three cheers for our dear old queen!" to "Three cheers for our queer old dean!"
Tautology is a statement which repeats an idea, effectively "saying the same thing twice".
And now tropes:-
Allegory is a narrative designed to deliver a broader message about real-world issues, for example the story of the apple falling on to Isaac Newton's head is one of the most famous allegories.
Allusion is where something is referred to from an unrelated context, as an example people say someone has had their "15 minutes of fame" with is an allusion to Andy Warhol's famous remark "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes".
Analogy is to create a comparison by transferring a meaning from one subject (source) to another (target).
Anapodoton is just to leave a sentence incomplete, making the reader/listener fill in the missing part, a great example is just to say/write "When in Rome …".
Antanaclasis is to repeat a single word or phrase, but with tow different senses, e.g. "Your argument is sound, nothing but sound" or "We make the travellers lot a lot easier".
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits to non-human things, e.g. as in talking rabbits, or toys that have emotions, or mascots that support sporting events, etc.
Antiphrasis is a form of irony when you say the opposite of what you mean, e.g. "Take your time, we've got all day".
Antonomasia is an epithet or phrase that lakes the place of a proper name, e.g. "the little corporal" (Napoleon I), "Old Blue Eyes", "The Bard", "The Fab Four", "The King", etc.
Circumlocution is circling around a subject without directly evolving it.
Double negative is best seen through an example. Saying "I don't disagree" to mean "I agree" would be a litotes, but you could stress the double negative adding more meaning with "I don't completely disagree" meaning "I completely agree". However some double negatives are in fact multiple negatives, as in "You don't know nothing" meaning truly "You know absolutely nothing".
Dysphemism is when a neutral statement is replaced with a derogatory one, e.g. replacing "mental hospital" with "loony bid", or 'Yankee' for American.
Erotema means a rhetorical question, as in "Can't you do anything right?", where no answer is expected.
Hypophora is where a speaker answers their own question, as in "Can't you do anything right? I will tell you ….".
Innuendo is an insinuation about a person or thing, usually derogatory or even 'risqué' with a double entendre.
Malapropism is the mistaken replacement of one word with another, as in calling someone "a suppository of wisdom" instead of "a repository of wisdom", or talking of "lavatories of innovation" instead of "laboratories of innovation".
Meiosis is an intentional understatement, as in "The Pond" for the Atlantic Ocean.
Merism is where a part, or some parts, are used to reference a whole, e.g. "lock, stock, and barrel" once meant the three major parts of a gun, but today means 'everything'
Metaphor involves directly referring to one thing by mentioning another, e.g. "All the world's a stage" or "I smell a rat". Metaphor would appear to group together the allegory, antithesis, parable, and pun.
Neologism is a new word, as yet to be accepted, whereas a protologism is a freshly coined word. Some past examples include 'cyberspace', 'Catch-22', 'scrooge' and 'Kafkaesque'.
Oxymoron is a self-contradiction often used to reveal a paradox. Many oxymoron are meant to be comical, as in "happily married", "honest politician", "military intelligence" and "business ethics".
Par'hyponoian is where a word that is expected is replaced by another, e.g. "Clement Attlee is a sheep in a sheep's clothing".
Parable is a short story that illustrates a lesson. Parables involve people, whilst fables employ animals, plants, objects, or forces of nature.
Paradox is a contradictory and/or incongruous juxtaposition of ideas providing an unexpected insight.
Paraprosdokian is a sentence where the second part is unexpected, as in "Take my wife - please!" And "I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it".
Apophasis is where a speaker brings up a subject by denying that it should be brought up, "I refuse to discuss …", "Setting aside …" and "It would be out of line for me to …".
Parody is a fun imitation of an original work, and is also often called a spoof, send-up, take-off, lampoon, play on …, caricature or just a joke.
Satire involves taking vices, follies and shortcomings, and holding them up to ridicule.
Simile directly and explicitly compares two things, whereas a metaphor creates an implicit comparison.
Hypallage is a phrase where one of words is actually linked to another subject in a sentence, e.g. you might "restless night" but 'restless' actually refers to a person later in the sentence, or "sleeping countryside" with 'sleeping' actually referring to the people living there.
Zoomorphism is where animal attributes are associated with humans or other objects, e.g. "the Holy Spirit appeared like a dove", "The roar of the ocean" and "He was built like a ox".