General Question

philip's avatar

What's the literary / rhetorical / analytical term for a figurative description of an action when the description can't apply to the actor?

Asked by philip (28points) July 28th, 2009

I’m looking for a term, a single word in the vein of “catachresis” or “synecdoche,” that would be used in literary / rhetorical analysis to describe expressions such as “she must have poured herself into those jeans” and others in which the literal interpretation is impossible of the actor described. Personification is a particular type of the word I’m looking for: to say that a non-person acts in a way that is human is an example of something being said figuratively to do something it can’t literally, but I want a term that includes the opposite—saying e.g. that a person does something that only an object can do, or that a certain type of object does something only another type of object can do. And the word for which I am looking does not describe a process or blurring of lines, as personification does, but a stark violation or deliberate crossing of a clear line.

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27 Answers

standardtoaster's avatar

Sounds just like a more specific usage of metaphor to me

Grisaille's avatar

What a fantastic question, props to @philip.

As for the answer, I somewhat agree with @standardtoaster; seems like an expanded metaphor, quite honestly. I’d love to be proven wrong, though.

cyn's avatar

I should have listened in Drama Ccass more often!

hearkat's avatar

<—- sits quietly in the corner, waiting for @Gailcalled and @Jeruba to happen upon this post

gailcalled's avatar

@All; I like either Metonomy or its cousin, Synecdoche:

@Philip: Could you be less abstract and more concrete? How about some examples. If you google “Greek rhetorical devices,” you get hundreds of examples.

Here’s the short version:

Jeruba's avatar

I would call your example a metaphor, but perhaps I am using the term imprecisely.
There are many shades of figurative language that I would call metaphorical in casual discussion but that are broken down much more finely in a serious analysis. Every figure of speech you could ever want to know about is here.

It is in the nature of metaphor that a literal reading may be impossible.

philip's avatar

It’s definitely not metonomy or synecdoche—more closely related to zeugma or syllepsis, at least insofar as both pertain to applying a description in a way it should not be applied, but the word should describe a figurative or descriptive transformation more than a literal or grammatical incongruence. I agree that more examples would help, but it’s hard for me to remember examples; however, I came across one recently in which a student wrote that something that does not flow was overflowing, and it reminded me that I’d been trying to remember this word for ages. I also agree with all who have written that what I am thinking of is an example of metaphor, but I have a vague but persistent memory of having once read a more specific term for this particular type of metaphor. Thanks for your help.

gailcalled's avatar

Apparently there are four types of common metaphors and eleven less common ones, including (aha) a synecdochic metaphor. And there are four that are used outside of rhetoric.

Some sophorific reading

@Philip; Please report back.

gailcalled's avatar

And I just remembered this. The critic Stuart Gilbert found c. 95 different rhetorical devices in the Aeolus chapter alone of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Jeruba's avatar

Isn’t catachresis exactly what you’re describing?

@gailcalled: did you mean soporific?

philip's avatar

I actually found @gailcalled‘s reading “sophorific” if that was an intentional pun on sophos, but hardly soporific.

@Jeruba: The difference between “my word” and catachresis is that mine should apply to the action, not to the usage…let me try to make sense of what I mean. E.g. in saying “she poured herself into her jeans,” it’s the fact that a person isn’t pourable that stands out, not a fact about what person or pour means. However, in the examples of catachresis on the Silva site, problems with the words themselves stand out—parricide doesn’t mean killer of mother but of father, the phrase sight unseen doesn’t refer to auditory things, we can’t say “elbow” of nose because of the meaning of elbow, not because of the nature of elbow—the description of a bent thing as having an elbow is not in the scope of “my” word (although this example is dicier due to its physical basis). I am struggling to explain the distinction, but as I see it one is about the words whereas the other (“mine”) is about the objects themselves or about their physical natures. I’ll need to sleep on this to try to draw a clearer line in the sand tomorrow.

I didn’t read all the way through the Silva site, though, so I should try that next. Though I should warn everyone who is putting so much effort into this that I may have to give up and decide that I must have concocted this memory and the distinctions I am drawing. (Eek!) We’ll see. Thanks!

Jeruba's avatar

Ok, @philip, I see what you mean. Those examples are almost more like simple malapropisms that happen to have some figurative power. I would still call your example metaphor, and of a kind that I do not think is uncommon. It’s my misfortune to be chronically unable to think of examples when asked for them, so I can’t back that up.

Are you writing a paper or journal article of some sort?

philip's avatar

Nope, I’m just curious. About six years ago I think I heard this term, then I tried to use it in a discussion half a year after that but I couldn’t remember it. Since then, I’ve thought of it every now and then, and today it came up again in a discussion and I also happened to read about Fluther on, hence my asking now.

Jeruba's avatar

In that case, it is good to know you’re not in a rush to meet a deadline. I also thought it might help to know your context and to gauge just how authoritative you needed to sound with it.

I’ll turn my antennae toward this one, and if I run across other good examples and/or your answer, I hope I’ll remember where I saw the question. If you encounter other instances of the same thing, do add them here, won’t you?

gailcalled's avatar

@Jeruba @philip: I was being sopomoric in my haste. And I can’t believe that there is not a rhetorical device to describe “she phoured herself into her jeans.”

And does the phog have little cat’s feet? Or could he have “oiled his way across the

Even the clumsiest writer wouldn’t say that the cat crept in on little fog’s feet. Although there are prosodic horrors that continue to surprise me today.

This is much more fun than making potato salad for 25.

Meribast's avatar

@standardtoaster I’m with you on this. When I got to the end of the question the first word to pop into my head was metaphor. My working vocabulary doesn’t include most of the others words brought into this discussion without consulting a dictionary, although for all I know at this moment they maybe descriptors for metaphors.

gailcalled's avatar

@Meribast: Note that there are 15 subsets of metaphors. See my link above.^^

Zen's avatar

What’s the difference between that question and it’s example of “pouring into her jeans” and any other metaphor, e.g. “breaking the ice?” It’s called a metaphor.

philip's avatar

@Zen: Ice can be broken. People can’t be poured.

Zen's avatar

@philip Oh yeah?! Ever seen The Wall?!


philip's avatar

@Zen: No, but given that introduction I think I’ll have to pass! :)

Don_Liston's avatar

Apostrophe seems to be the answer to me.

Don_Liston's avatar

“Meta” denotes “among” and “phor” denotes “carrier” which really doesn’t take you anywhere but I always thought that “meta” meant “change” and “phor” meant “form.”

submariner's avatar

@philip How about antipersonification, a.k.a. antiprosopopoeia? Q.v. the relevant entry on Silva Rhetoricae :

Kharon's avatar

Hey, I just joined this site, and I’m only a sophomore in a public high-school and am in no way an authority on literary devices, so please don’t think badly of me if I’m making a fool of myself.

@Philip: I’m not sure it fits exactly, but could you be remembering juxtaposition? When you said “a stark violation or deliberate crossing of a clear line”, it fit in my head with the definition my school gave me of juxtaposition (“normally unassociated ideas, words, or phrases are placed next to one another”).

Sorry if I’m way off here.

philip's avatar

@submariner The definition of antiprosopopoeia on Silva makes perfect sense. The example in the definition is not totally in line with my idea because I am imagining a doing rather than a being. I cannot draw a clear distinction between Silva’s example and my example, though, for in both cases the person takes on the characteristic of the non-person: in my example, a liquid; in Silva’s, a doormat.

But the cases still feel different to me. In my example, the object is unspecified and it is via the action that the object’s characteristics are metaphorically attributed to the person. In the website’s example, the object is specified and its characteristics are directly attributed to the person merely by virtue of the identity of the person with the object.

Or, from another point of view, to say a person is a doormat is direct in a way saying a person poured herself is not. We instantly think of being a doormat as meaning something when used to describe people; we have no such analogue for “pouring” as meaning something when used to describe what we do to people. (At least, I do not think we instantly think something.)

Still, as I said, I am not convinced that the distinction I’m drawing is clear enough to compel me to persist in believing that there is a term besides antiprosopopoeia for the example I have.

However, may I yet persist in believing that there is a separate term that encapsulates precisely prosopopoeia and its opposite?

@gailcalled? @Jeruba? Any thoughts on @submariner‘s response?

PS My apologies: I’m not sure about the timeline of these posts, but I only just received an e-mail about a new response, hence my possible delay in responding to @submariner.

SmartAZ's avatar

Personification is when you speak to a concept as if it were a person: “O death, where is thy sting?” When an inanimate thing is given human attributes, that is prosopopoeia, and don’t you dare ask me how to pronounce that!

Condescensio (without the final ‘n’) is when a higher being is described in terms that apply to a lower being. For example we say a man gets up on his hind legs. A man doesn’t have hind legs, an animal has hind legs. So the man condescends to be described as an animal.

HERE is a book that lists about 900 figures of speech found in the bible. It is almost the only work in the subject for the last two thousand years.

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