A posteriori


BOB: See discussion under "bob-and-wheel



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BOB: See discussion under "bob-and-wheel," below.

BOB-AND-WHEEL: A metrical devise in some alliterative-verse poetry, especially that of the Pearl Poet and that of fourteenth-century poems like Sir Tristrem. The first short line of a group of rhyming lines is known as the "bob" and the subsequent four are a quatraine called the "wheel." The bob contains one stress preceded by either one or occasionally two unstressed syllables (i.e., the bob is only two or three syllables long). Each line of the wheel contains three stresses. Together, the bob-and-wheel constitutes five lines rhyming in an ABABA pattern. Since it matches the alliterative pattern of the first part of the stanza, but also fits the rhyme scheme of the last five lines, the "bob" serves as a structural bridge between the alliterative sections and the rhyming sections of the poem. It is easier to understand by looking at an example. Click here for a sample to view. See also alliteration and rhyme.



BODILY HUMORS: See "humors, bodily."

BODY POLITIC, THE: The monarchial government, including all its citizens, its army, and its king. Political theory in the Elizabethan period thought of each kingdom as a "body," with the king functioning as its head. Events affecting the body politic, such as political turmoil, warfare, and plague, would be mirrored in the macrocosm, the microcosm, and the Chain of Being (see below).

BOETHIAN: Having to do with the philosophy of Boethius, i.e., a philosophy of predestination suggesting all events appearing evil, misfortunate, disastrous, or accidental are none of these things. Rather, such events are illusions that only appear this way to humans because we are limited in our perceptions while bound by time. In actuality, such events serve a higher beneficial purpose that must remain unknown to us as long as we are trapped by the limits of the physical universe. The term comes from the philosopher Boethius, who formulated an argument concerning it in his immensely influential work, Consolatio Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), which he wrote in 524 AD while awaiting his execution in prison on unjust charges. To give the reader an idea of how popular this book was in the Middle Ages, over five hundred manuscripts of it survive today; in comparison, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales only survives in about eighty-two manuscripts. A common intellectual party-game in medieval times may have been to take turns reciting lines of the Consolatio by memory.

Boethian thought profoundly influenced Chaucer, who wrote Boece, his own translation of the Latin text. The concerns of Boethius were profoundly influential in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" and Troilus and Criseyde. In "The Knight's Tale," Palamoun and Arcite's plight in prison is in many ways akin to that of the semi-autobiographical narrator in the Consolatio, and Duke Theseus' famous speech about the First Mover is a rough paraphrase of Boethian thought. In the conclusion to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus' spirit floating over the battle and laughing at the small scale of the war and his old, bitter, fleshly desires is another Boethian moment.

BOUND MORPHEME: A morpheme used exclusively as part of a larger word rather than one that can stand alone and retain independent meaning. Examples include the morpheme ept in the word inept, or the morpheme gruntle in the word disgruntled. This term is the opposite of a free morpheme, which can function by itself as a word, such as the morphemes it and self in the word itself.

BORDER: In medieval manuscripts, a border is, as Kathleen Scott puts it, "A type of book decoration placed around one to four sides of the justification [writing space] in order to distinguish and decorate main divisions of the text; usually more elaborate on the first page and/or Table of Contents page; also used around miniature frames" (Scott 370).



BORROWING: As Simon Horobin defines it, "The process by which words are adopted into one language from another" (192). Linguists use this term because borrowing sounds better than the term stealing, which would be more accurate given that we do not typically return the words we borrow. See also loanword.

BOURGEOIS: See discussion under bourgeoisie, below.

BOURGEOISIE (French, "city-dwelling"): The French term bourgeoisie is a noun referring to the non-aristocratic middle-class, while the word bourgeois is the adjective-form. Calling something bourgeois implies that something is middle-class in its tendencies or values. Marxist literary critics use the term in a specialized sense to indicate the comfortable, well-to-do class of consumers that have more status than the proletariat, the lower-class workers who perform the "real" work of a civilization in actually producing goods and materials. In another sense--one particularly useful for medieval historians--the term bourgeoisie encompasses the city-dwelling yeomen in the late medieval period who were no longer tied to agricultural work as enfeoffed serfs. These city-dwellers--including craftsmen, guildsmen, traders, and skilled laborers--worked on a capitalistic model in which goods and services would be provided in exchange for cash. Though to a modern American this arangement seems normal enough, it was a revolutionary concept in a feudal society where transactions took place in barter, where most male citizens would swear loyalty to a liege lord in exchange for land or protection, and where serfs were bound to a section of land as the "property" of their feudal overlord. It was also a departure from the traditional "Three Estates" theory of government sanctioned by the church. The increasing number of bourgeois workers in cities and the diminishing number of serfs working in rural areas marked the transition from feudalism to modernity. Indeed, many of these so-called "middle class" citizens were fantastically wealthy--far richer in terms of their liquid assets than the knights and minor nobility who were their social "betters." The aristocrats attempted to distinguish themselves by the use of heraldic symbols, last-names, and sumptuary laws that made it illegal for "commoners" (no matter how rich) to wear particular types of clothing or jewelry.

The rise of the bourgeoisie accelerated after the Black Death of 1348, which killed on average about one-third of the European and Insular population. Suddenly, the earlier surplus of cheap labor vanished, and common laborers realized they could demand concessions from the nobility for their work. (If the nobleman refused, the serf could simply run away and find work in town, or on the lands of another nobleman who was less stingy with his demands; these outlets had been less accessible before. Previously, under the Three Estates system, the only social escape-hatch was to become a monk.) In England, aristocratic measures like the 1351 Statute of Laborers failed to freeze labor prices, and they failed to stop the slow slide from feudalism to capitalism. Such efforts along with ruinous taxes and corrupt government kindled widespread resentment amongst the lower classes. This anger exploded in the so-called Peasant's Revolt of 1381, led by Wat Tyler. The uprising was more accurately a popular bourgeois revolt against the nobility and the corruption of the gentry, but the appellation shows how the aristocracy still tended to think of the "lower classes" as serfs and treat them accordingly.

The rise of the bourgeoisie is mirrored in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer depicts humanity as a collection of pilgrims. Each character is a member of a specific occupation. We also see signs of social tension between various pilgrims, which manifests itself in the Miller's parody of the Knight's love-triangle, in the pretensions of the Monk and Prioress, the Franklin's concern with the idea that even non-aristocratic people can be "noble," and so on.

BOUSTROPHEDON (Greek, "as the ox turns while plowing"): A method of writing in which the text is read alternately from left to right on odd numbered lines and then read right to left in even numbered lines. Some early Greek texts are written in this manner, including Solon's laws. This contrasts with English convention (left-to-right), Hebrew convention (right to left), and various Oriental conventions (top to bottom).

BOWDLERIZATION: A later editor's censorship of sexuality, profanity, and political sentiment of an earlier author's text. Editors and scholars usually use this term in a derogatory way to denote an inferior or incomplete text. A text censored in this way is said to be bowdlerized. The term comes from the name of Reverend Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) who produced The Family Shakespeare (1815-18). He removed whatever he considered "unfit to be read by a gentleman in the company of ladies."

The following passages are a few examples of lines still frequently bowdlerized in American high-school and college textbooks:



  • Mercutio's jokes with the Nurse about masturbation in Romeo and Juliet (Act II. scene iv. l12-19)

  • Sampson and Gregory's talk about raping virgins in Romeo and Juliet (Act I, scene i, 16-27)

  • Petruchio's joke with Kate about oral sex ("my tongue in your tail") in The Taming of the Shrew (Act II, i, 215-17)

  • Iago's claim that Othello and Desdemona are, in modern slang, "having doggy-style sex" ("making the beast with two backs") in Othello (Act I, scene i, 112-13).

Other editors such as A. W. Verity continue to produce school editions of Shakespeare with such sections removed or altered. The tendency is not confined to Shakespearean plays, however. Victorian editions of Ovid's Art of Love and the poetry of Catallus often use ellipses in Latin editions to indicate expurgated lines dealing with sexual practices. Alternatively, Victorian "translations" of these texts would leave the Latin untranslated in those sections dealing with Ovid's advice in the bedroom or with adultery. Many modern editions of Greek mythology and many college anthologies of the Iliad quietly gloss over the homosexual nature of Achilles' relationship with Patroclus, or the lesbian aspects of Sappho's poetry (circa 7th century BCE). J. M. Manly's version of Chaucer's fabliaux and many other college Chaucer anthologies frequently remove or skip over the "naughty bits" in the Miller's, Reeve's, Wife's, and Shipman's tales. Other literary works frequently bowdlerized include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), where later editors often remove the sections discussing how the protagonist saves the Lilliputian village by urinating on a fire and those discussing how the protagonist ends up hanging from the oversized nipples of a naked Brobdingnagian giantess. The 1001 Arabian Nights and the works of Sir Richard Burton are often bowdlerized to remove discussion of polygamous Arabic customs, sexuality, or violence.

Even the Bible itself has not escaped attempts at bowdlerization. In the nineteenth century, "decorous" versions of the Bible were printed in which "improper" verses were removed from the text and placed in a separately published appendix. To give some idea of the extent of the bowdlerization, these editors removed references to nudity in the Adam and Eve narrative (Gen 2:24-25), to Noah's drunkenness (Gen.9:20-25), genitalia (Deut.23:11-12), circumcision (Gen. 17: 12-14, Joshua 5:1-3, 1 Sam. 18:24-27), rape (Judges 19:22-26), homosexuality (Gen. 19-14), descriptions of incest (Gen. 19:30-36), masturbation (Gen. 38:8-10), Judah's sexual intercourse with his daughter-in-law (Gen. 38:15 et passim), and David's adultery with Bathsheba after seeing her bathing in the nude (2 Sam. 11:2 et passim). The list of expurgations goes on much further than this, but these few examples illustrate the over-zealous tendencies of censors. It seems that, for some editors, even God is guilty of puerile titillations.

Victorian and early twentieth-century editors were most likely to bowdlerize a text based on its sexual content. Today, texts tend to be censored or altered to remove racist or gender-biased content. The works of Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner also face bowdlerization when later editors and educators seek to remove racial epithets or stereotypes that African-American readers find insulting. Many anthologies of Chaucer leave out "The Prioress' Tale" because of her blatant antisemitism. Similar drives to edit sexist pronoun usage (i.e., using the masculine he in reference to individuals of indeterminate gender), or the use of masculine-tinged words like man or mankind instead of gender-neutral words like humanity have led to proposed alterations to the poems of John Milton and others, even though such attempts at bowdlerization often clash with the metrical or grammatical constraints of the original work, or elide the author's intentions and historical realities of the period. Click here to download a PDF handout discussing this material.

BOWDLERIZE: To censor or alter an earlier writer's work. See discussion under bowdlerization, above.

BOW-WOW THEORY: In linguistics, the idea that language began when humans imitated animal noises or other natural sounds. Contrast with the yo-he-ho theory.

BOX SET: A theatrical structure common to modern drama in which the stage consists of a single room setting in which the "fourth wall" is missing so the audience can view the events within the room. Contrast with the theater in the round and apron stage.

BRADSHAW SHIFT: Not to be confused with the Great Vowel Shift, the Bradshaw Shift is a suggested alteration to the order of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, one which differs radically from the manuscript tradition.

Chaucer never completed The Canterbury Tales, and he left us today ten fragments that can be organized in various ways to make a larger narrative. These fragments are bits of narrative linked together by internal signs--such as pieces of conversation or passages referring to an earlier story or the story about to come next. The fragments are usually designated with Roman numerals (i.e., I-X) in modern editions of the text, but the Chaucer Society uses alphabetical designations to refer to these fragments (i.e., Fragments A-I). Only between Fragments IX-X and (in the case of the Ellesmere family between Fragments IV-V) do we find explicit indication of an order. Consequently, modern editions differ in the order the tales are presented.

The most controversial and influential of these theorized orders is known as the Bradshaw Shift. In this arrangement, Fragment VII (B2) is moved to follow Fragment II (B1), with Fragment VI following. The complete arrangement thus looks like this: I (A), II (B), VII (B2), VI (C), III (D), IV (E), V (F), VIII (G), IX (H), and X (I). A slight variant of this order is that of Baugh and Pratt, who move Fragment V so that it follows Fragment VI. The controversy about such an arrangement stems from the fact that none of the surviving 82 manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales contains such a specific order, even though there is good evidence from the stories that such an order makes sense. Click here to download a detailed pdf handout discussing the Bradshaw Shift and the order of the tales.

BRANCH: One of the four groupings of Welsh tales in The Mabinogion. Tradition divides The Mabinogion into a series of loosely connected narratives revolving around one or more characters.

(1) First Branch: Pwyll

(2) Second Branch: Branwen

(3) Third Branch: Manawydan

(4) Fourth Branch: Math vab Mathonwy

Collectively, these are famously called "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi."

BRETON: A Celtic language spoken in the northwestern part of France. Not to be confused with a Briton with an -i (i.e., a British person). See further discussion under "Bretons" below.



BRETON LAI (also spelled Breton lay): Another term for a lai. See lai.

BRETONS: The Celtic inhabitants of Brittany ("Little Britain") in northeast France who speak the Breton language. The term is related to British "Briton." The Bretons may be responsible for carrying Arthurian legends into France, where they influenced Chretien de Troyes and other continental writers. They also produced the lais that influenced Marie de France. Click here for a map of the regions where Breton is spoken.

BREVE: A mark in the shape of a bowl-like half circle that indicates a light stress or an unaccented syllable.

BRITICISM: An expression or word that developed in Britain after the American colonies separated politically from Britain's rule.

BRITISH ENGLISH: The English language in the British isles, especially in contrast with Canadian, Australian, or U.S. English.

BRITON: An inhabitant of Britain--especially a Celtic one. Do not confuse it with a Breton, a Celtic inhabitant of Brittany in France. Note that while all the English, the Scottish, and the Welsh are often called Britons or Brits, none of them are Bretons. Additionally, only the folks in Southeastern portions of Britain are English. Calling a Scotsman or a Welshman an "Englishman" is a good way for ignorant American travelers to have their jaws broken in a rowdy pub.

BROAD TRANSCRIPTION: Imprecise phonetic transcription for general comparative purposes.

BROTHERS-IN-ARMS: Individuals in medieval warfare who have sworn a military partnership with each other, agreeing to ransom each other from imprisonment if one of the two is captured by the enemy, swearing to abide by the rules established in their company, vowing loyalty to one another, and agreeing to share their plunder amongst themselves in a predetermined way. Chaucer's Palamon and Arcite in "The Knight's Tale" appear to swear brothership-in-arms with each other, but that vow of loyalty falls apart when both are lovestruck by the sight of Emilye. For further discussion of this medieval practice, consult Maurice H. Keen's books and articles on chivalry.

BRYTHONIC (also spelled Brittanic): One of the two branches of the Celtic family of languages descended from Proto-Indo-European. Brythonic includes Celtic languages such as Cornish, Breton, and Welsh. The Brythonic language branch is also referred to as "P-Celtic" because it tends to use a
in certain words where a or appears in Goidelic cognates. Contrast with the related Goidelic or Q-Celtic branch, which includes Manx, Irish Gaelic, and Scots Gaelic.

BURLESQUE: A work that ridicules a topic by treating something exalted as if it were trivial or vice-versa. See also parody and travesty.

BUSINESS (also called stage business): The gestures, expressions, and general activity (beyond blocking) of actors on-stage. Usually, business is designed to illicit laughter. Such activity is often spontaneous, and may vary from performance to performance. Cf. blocking, above.

BUSKINS: Originally called kothorni in Greek, the word buskins is a Renaissance term for the elegantly laced boots worn by actors in ancient Greek tragedy. The buskins later became elevator shoes that made the actor wearing them unusually tall to emphasize the royal status or importance of the character. Contrast with soccus.

BYRONIC HERO: An antihero who is a romanticized but wicked character. Conventionally, the figure is a young and attractive male with a bad reputation. He defies authority and conventional morality, and becomes paradoxically ennobled by his peculiar rejection of virtue. In this sense, Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost may be considered sympathetically as an antihero, as are many of Lord Byron's protagonists (hence the name). From American pop culture, the icon of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause is a good example. Other literary examples are Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights and the demonic Melmoth in Melmoth the Wanderer. Byronic heroes are associated with destructive passions, sometimes selfish brooding or indulgence in personal pains, alienation from their communities, persistent loneliness, intense introspection, and fiery rebellion.

CACOPHONY (Greek, "bad sound"): The term in poetry refers to the use of words that combine sharp, harsh, hissing, or unmelodious sounds. It is the opposite of euphony.

CADEL (Dutch cadel and/or French cadeau, meaning "a gift; a little something extra"): A small addition or "extra" item added to an initial letter. Common cadels include pen-drawn faces or grotesques. Examples include the faces appearing in the initial letters of the Lansdowne 851 manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

CADENCE: The melodic pattern just before the end of a sentence or phrase--for instance an interrogation or an exhortation. More generally, the natural rhythm of language depending on the position of stressed and unstressed syllables. Cadence is a major component of individual writers' styles. A cadence group is a coherent group of words spoken as a single rhythmical unit, such as a prepositional phrase, "of parting day" or a noun phrase, "our inalienable rights."



CADENCE GROUP: See discussion under cadence.

CAESURA (plural: caesurae): A pause separating phrases within lines of poetry--an important part of poetic rhythm. The term caesura comes from the Latin "a cutting" or "a slicing." Some editors will indicate a caesura by inserting a slash (/) in the middle of a poetic line. Others insert extra space in this location. Others do not indicate the caesura typographically at all.

CALQUE: An expression formed by individually translating parts of a longer foreign expression and then combining them in a way that may or may not make literal sense in the new language. Algeo provides the example of the English phrase trial balloon, which is a calque for the French ballon d'essai (Algeo 323).

CALLIGRAPHIC WORK: In medieval manuscripts, this is (as Kathleen Scott states), "Decorative work, usually developing from or used to make up an important or introductory initial, or developing from ascenders at the top of the page and descenders at the bottom of the justified text; a series of strokes made by holding a quill constant at one angle to produce broader and narrower lines, which in combination appear to overlap one another to form strap-work" (Scott 370).

CANCEL: A bibliographical term referring to a leaf which is substituted for one removed by the printers because of an error. For instance, the first quarto of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida has a title page existing in both cancelled and uncancelled states, leaving modern readers in some doubt as to whether the play should be considered a comedy, history, or tragedy.

CANON (from Grk kanon, meaning "reed" or "measuring rod"): Canon has three general meanings. (1) An approved or traditional collection of works. Originally, the term "canon" applied to the list of books to be included as authentic biblical doctrine in the Hebrew and Christian Bible, as opposed to apocryphal works (works of dubious, mysterious or uncertain origin). Click here for more information. (2) Today, literature students typically use the word canon to refer to those works in anthologies that have come to be considered standard or traditionally included in the classroom and published textbooks. In this sense, "the canon" denotes the entire body of literature traditionally thought to be suitable for admiration and study. (3) In addition, the word canon refers to the writings of an author that generally are accepted as genuine, such as the "Chaucer canon" or the "Shakespeare canon." Chaucer's canon includes The Canterbury Tales, for instance, but it does not include the apocryphal work, "The Plowman's Tale," which has been mistakenly attributed to him in the past. Likewise, the Shakespearean canon has only two apocryphal plays (Pericles and the Two Noble Kinsmen) that have gained wide acceptance as authentic Shakespearean works beyond the thirty-six plays contained in the First Folio. NB: Do not confuse the spelling of cannon (the big gun) with canon (the official collection of literary works).

The issue of canonical literature is a thorny one. Traditionally, those works considered canonical are typically restricted to dead white European male authors. Many modern critics and teachers argue that women, minorities, and non-Western writers are left out of the literary canon unfairly. Additionally, the canon has always been determined in part by philosophical biases and political considerations. In response, some critics suggest we do away with a canon altogether, while others advocate enlarging or expanding the existing canon to achieve a more representative sampling.

CANTICLE: A hymn or religious song using words from any part of the Bible except the Psalms.

CANTO: A sub-division of an epic or narrative poem comparable to a chapter in a novel. Examples include the divisions in Dante's Divine Comedy, Lord Byron's Childe Harold, or Spenser's Faerie Queene. Cf. fit.

CANZONE: In general, the term has three meanings. (1) It refers generally to the words of a Provençal or Italian song. (2) More specifically, an Italian or Provençal song relating to love or the praise of beauty is a canzone. (3) Poems in English that bear some similarity to Provençal lyrics are called canzones--such as Auden's unrhymed poem entitled "Canzone," which uses the end words of the first twelve-line stanza in each of the following stanzas.

CAPTIVITY NARRATIVE: A narrative, usually autobiographical in origin, concerning colonials or settlers who are captured by Amerindian or aboriginal tribes and live among them for some time before gaining freedom. An example would be Mary Rowlandson's A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, which details her Indian captivity among the Wampanoag tribe in the late seventeenth century. Contrast with escape literature and slave narrative.

CARDINAL VIRTUES (also called the Four Pagan Virtues): In contrast to the three spiritual or Christian virtues of fides (faith), spes (hope), and caritas (love) espoused in the New Testament, the four cardinal virtues consisted of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. Theologians like Saint Augustine argued Christians alone monopolized faith in a true God, hope of a real afterlife, and the ability to love human beings not for their own sake, but as a manifestation of God's creation. However, these early theologians argued that pagans could still be virtuous in the cardinal virtues. In Latin terminology, pagan Rome espoused the four cardinal virtues as follows:



  • prudentia (or sapientia): prudence, wisdom, foresight, planning ahead for emergencies, seeing the good of the whole community

  • fortitudo: fortitude, toughness, bravery, enduring pain in stoic silence, willingness to sacrifice or suffer for the good of the whole community

  • moderatio: moderation, avoiding extremes of appetite and enthusiasm, seeking balance

  • iustitia: justice, the preservation of the good and the punishment of the wicked.

The Latin four-fold classification--later adopted by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas--originates in much older Greek philosophy. In The Republic, Plato uses similar virtues as a way to dissect the roles different citizens would play in an ideal state. Cf. pietas.

CARPE DIEM: Literally, the phrase is Latin for "seize the day," from carpere (to pluck, harvest, or grab) and the accusative form of die (day). The term refers to a common moral or theme in classical literature that the reader should make the most out of life and should enjoy it before it ends. Poetry or literature that illustrates this moral is often called poetry or literature of the "carpe diem" tradition. Examples include Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," and Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time." Cf. Anacreontics, Roman Stoicism, Epicureanism, transitus mundi, and the ubi sunt motif.

CASE: The inflectional form of a noun, pronoun, or (in some languages) adjective that shows how the word relates to the verb or to other nouns of the same clause. For instance, them is the objective case of they, and their is the possessive case of they. Common cases include the nominative, the accusative, the genitive, the dative, the ablative, the vocative, and the instrumental forms. Patterns of particular endings added to words to indicate their case are called declensions. Click here for expanded information.

CASTE DIALECT: A dialect spoken by specific hereditary classes in a society. Often the use of caste dialect marks the speaker as part of that particular class.

CATACHRESIS (Grk. "misuse"): A completely impossible figure of speech or an implied metaphor that results from combining other extreme figures of speech such as anthimeria, hyperbole, synaesthesia, and metonymy. The results in each case are so unique that it is hard to state a general figure of speech that embodies all of the possible results. It is far easier to give examples. For instance, Hamlet says of Gertrude, "I will speak daggers to her." A man can speak words, but no one can literally speak daggers. In spite of that impossibility, readers know Shakespeare means Hamlet will address Gertrude in a painful, contemptuous way. In pop culture from the 1980s, the performer Meatloaf tells a disappointed lover, "There ain't no Coup de Ville hiding the bottom of a crackerjack box." The image of a luxury car hidden as a prize in the bottom of a tiny cardboard candybox emphasizes how unlikely or impossible it is his hopeful lover will find such a fantastic treasure in someone as cheap, common, and unworthy as the speaker in these lyrics. Sometimes the catachresis results from stacking one impossibility on top of another. Consider these examples:


  • "There existed a void inside that void within his mind."

  • "Joe will have kittens when he hears this!"

  • "I will sing victories for you."

  • "A man that studies revenge keeps his own wounds green."--Bacon

  • "I do not ask much: / I beg cold comfort." --Shakespeare, (King John 5.7.41)

  • "His complexion is perfect gallows"--Shakespeare, (Tempest 1.1.33)

  • "And that White Sustenance--Despair"--Dickinson

  • "The Oriel Common Room stank of logic" --Cardinal Newman

  • "O, I could lose all Father now"--Ben Jonson, on the death of his seven-year old son.

  • "The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses" --e.e. cummings

Catachresis often results from hyperbole and synaesthesia. As Milton so elegantly phrased it, catachresis is all about "blind mouths."

A special subtype of catachresis is abusio, a mixed metaphor that results when two metaphors collide. For instance, one U. S. senator learned of an unlikely political alliance. He is said to have exclaimed, "Now that is a horse of a different feather." This abusio is the result of two metaphors. The first is the cliché metaphor comparing anything unusual to "a horse of a different color." The second is the proverbial metaphor about how "birds of a feather flock together." However, by taking the two dead metaphors and combining them, the resulting image of "a horse of a different feather" truly emphasizes how bizarre and unlikely the resulting political alliance was. Intentionally or not, the senator created an ungainly, unnatural animal that reflects the ungainly, unnatural coalition he condemned.

Purists of languages often scrowl at abusio with good reason. Too commonly abusio is the result of sloppy writing, such as the history student who wrote "the dreadful hand of totalitarianism watches all that goes on around it and growls at its enemies." (It would have been better to stick with a single metaphor and state "the eye of totalitarianism watches all that goes on around it and glares at its enemies." We should leave out the mixed imagery of watchful hands growling at people; it's just stupid and inconsistent.) However, when used intentionally for a subtle effect, abusio and catachresis can be powerful tools for originality.

CATALECTIC: In poetry, a catalectic line is a truncated line in which one or more unstressed syllables have been dropped. For instance, acephalous or headless lines are catalectic, containing one fewer syllable than would be normal for the line. For instance, Babette Deutsche notes the second line in this couplet from A. E. Housman is catalectic:

And if my ways are not as theirs,
Let them mind their own affairs.

On the other hand, in trochaic verse, the final syllable tends to be the truncated one, as Deutsche notes about the first two lines of Shelley's stanza:

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory--
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the senses they quicken.

The term catalectic contrasts with an acatalectic line, which refers to a "normal" line of poetry with the expected number of syllables in each line, or a hypercatalectic line, which has one or more extra syllables than would normally be expected.

CATALEXIS: In poetry, a catalectic line is shortened or truncated so that unstressed syllables drop from a line. If catalexis occurs at the start of a line, that line is said to be acephalous or headless. See catalectic..

CATALOGING: Creating long lists for poetic or rhetorical effect. The technique is common in epic literature, where conventionally the poet would devise long lists of famous princes, aristocrats, warriors, and mythic heroes to be lined up in battle and slaughtered. The technique is also common in the practice of giving illustrious genealogies ("and so-and-so begat so-and-so," or "x, son of y, son of z" etc.) for famous individuals. An example in American literature is Whitman's multi-page catalog of American types in section 15 of "Song of Myself." An excerpt appears below:

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loaf and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case.... [etc.]

One of the more humorous examples of cataloging appears in the Welsh Mabinogion. In one tale, "Culhwch and Olwen," the protagonist invokes in an oath all the names of King Arthur's companion-warriors, giving lists of their unusual attributes or abilities running to six pages.

CATASTROPHE: The "turning downward" of the plot in a classical tragedy. By tradition, the catastrophe occurs in the fourth act of the play after the climax. (See tragedy.) Freytag's pyramid illustrates visually the normal charting of the catastrophe in a plotline.

CATCH: A lyric poem or song meant to be sung as a round, with the words arranged in each line so that the audience will hear a hidden (often humorous or ribald) message as the groups of singers sing their separate lyrics and space out the wording of the poem. For example, one might write a song in which the first line contained the words "up," the word "look" appears in the middle of the third line, the word "dress" appears in the second line, and the word "her" appears in the middle of the fourth line. When the song or poem is sung as a round by four groups of singers, the word order and timing is arranged so that the singers create the hidden phrase "look up her dress" as they sing, to the amusement of the audience as they listen to an otherwise innocent set of lyrics. Robert Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" is an example of a catch, and when William Lawes adapted the poem to music for Milton's masque Comus, it became one of the most popular drinking songs of the 1600s (Damrosche 844-45).

CATCHWORD: This phrase comes from printing; it refers to a trick printers would use to keep pages in their proper order. The printer would print a specific word below the text at the bottom of a page. This word would match the first word on the next page. A printer could thus check the order by flipping quickly from one page to the next and making sure the catchword matched appropriately. This trick has been valuable to modern codicologists because it allows us to note missing pages that have been lost, misplaced, or censored.

CATHARSIS: An emotional discharge that brings about a moral or spiritual renewal or welcome relief from tension and anxiety. According to Aristotle, catharsis is the marking feature and ultimate end of any tragic artistic work. He writes in his Poetics (c. 350 BCE): "Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; . . . through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions" (Book 6.2). (See tragedy.) Click here to download a pdf handout concerning this material.

CAUDATE RHYME: Another term for tail-rhyme or rime couée. See discussion under tail-rhyme.

CAVALIER: A follower of Charles I of England (ruled c. 1625-49) in his struggles with the Puritan-dominated parliament. The term is used in contrast with Roundheads, his Puritan opponents. Cavaliers were primarily wealthy aristocrats and courtiers. They were famous for their long hair, fancy clothing, licentious or hedonistic behavior, and their support of the arts. See Cavalier drama and Cavalier poets, below. Ultimately, Cromwell led the Roundheads in a coup d'état and established a Puritan dictatorship in England, leading to the end of the English Renaissance and its artistic, scientific, and cultural achievements. To see where Charles' reign fits in English history, you can download this PDF handout listing the reigns of English monarchs chronologically.

CAVALIER DRAMA: A form of English drama comprising court plays that the Queen gave patronage to in the 1630s. Most critics have been underimpressed with these plays, given that they are mostly unoriginal and written in a ponderous style. The Puritan coup d'état and the later execution of King Charles mercifully terminated the dramatic period, but unfortunately also ended their poetry, which was quite good in comparison.

CAVALIER POETS: A group of Cavalier English lyric poets who supported King Charles I and wrote during his reign. The major Cavalier poets included Carew, Waller, Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, and Herrick. They largely abandoned the sonnet form favored for a century earlier, but they still focused on the themes of love and sensuality and their work illustrates "technical virtuosity" as J. A. Cuddon put it (125). They show strong signs of Ben Jonson's influence.




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