Tropes in Ancient Grammar II
Bill Long 4/3/08
Whenever you have difficult terms or concepts like synecdoche, metalepsis and metonymy, it is best to begin with the easy terms in the list, so that you can build your confidence and then attack the really difficult words. Let's begin with epithet, antonomasia, onomatopoeia, and periphrasis.
Epithet is the easiest of the terms. It simply is an adjective or qualifier "in addition to the name" and is placed either before or after the name that it modifies. Isidore gives the example of "bountiful Ceres." Homer is the progenitor of this kind of writing, where he gives the name of "rosy-fingered dawn" to Eos or speaks of the "wind-swift Iris" or the "crafty Odysseus." We also have "Dionysius the Tyrant" or "Alexander the Great." But the word can also have a broader significance when any adjective is used to express some real quality of the person or thing described. In this regard we have a benevolent or hard-hearted person; a scandalous exhibition; or sphinx-like mystery. As one writer on rhetoric said: "By the judicious employment of epithets we may bring distinctly to view, with the greatest brevity, an object with its characteristic features." Another author could write: "In no matter of detail are the genius and art of the poet more perceptible and nicely balanced than in the use of epithets." Quintilian encourages its use, in order to remove the "bare and graceless" language that often is used, but he adds this caution:
"but [the language] is overburdened if there are too many. For a passage becomes heavy and embarrassed, so if used in pleadings, you would pronounce it like an army with as many sutlers as soldiers, doubling its size but not its strength," 8.6.41-42.
I came up with an epithet yesterday that sent some friends chuckling. A friend of mine has two acquaintances named "Matt." In order to differentiate them he calls them the "good Matt" and the "bad Matt." Instead of the latter, I suggested that he name the second "Haz Matt"--after "hazardous materials" or "haz mat." Genius and art indeed!
We only travel a little distance from epithet when we encounter antonomasia. Its literal meaning in Greek is "instead of" (anti) the "name" (onoma) and is a device where there is an epithet or an appellative of some office or person though without naming the person. For example, Virgil uses "begotten of Maia" to stand in place of the name "Mercury." Whereas the ancient grammarians wanted to break this category down into the "three manners" of antonomasia (from the spirit; from the body; from something extrinsic), I think it is sufficient to give some examples. The "large-souled son of Anchises" would be Achilles; "his majesty" stands for the King; "the philosopher" for Aristotle, or even "the King" for Elvis or "the Greatest" for Muhammad Ali. It can also have an interesting converse use, as when someone calls a person of severe temperament a "Cato" or a wise man a "Solomon." As Quintilian says, "you do not commit many faults where the name of neither is expressed, but both are understood."
While using the word onoma we might as well go to the one trope that seems to be well-understood in English--onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia, surprisingly, simply means "the making of words," and has nothing etymologically to do with its actual definition--which is the invention of words that reflect the sound produced by the thing signified. Quintilian gives the words mugitus (the "lowing" made by cows), sibilus ("hissing") and murmur (well, "murmur") as three examples of this. He calls this a device "which was counted by the Greeks among the greatest merits," even though it is "scarcely permitted to us," (8.6.31). Why? Well, according to him, all of such words have already been invented and, in fact, many of these words invented by the "ancients" were "daily" falling out of use. 8.6.32. But we would have to disagree with Quintilian today. English came up with several words to capture the sounds of things it describes, such as buzz, hum, whoosh, splash, crash, bow-wow or even whippoorwill. Peacham, in 1577 gave the example of hurliburly, "for an uprore, and tumultuous stirre." More such words are definitely in the works, especially if you "listen" closely to life.
Concluding with Periphrasis
Periphrasis is, literally speaking, "speaking around" a subject or idea. The Latin equivalent is circumlocutio, which we know as circumlocution. It adds to my growing list of English words that mean the same thing but are derived from both the Greek and Latin, such as ichthyophagous and piscivorous. So we have periphrasis and circumlocution. Puttenham, in his Arte of English Poesie (p. 161), wrote:
"Then have ye the figure Periphrasis, holding somewhat of the dissembler, by reason of a secret intent not appearing by the words, as when we go about the bush."
You wonder about the origin of the phrase "beat around the bush" now, don't you? So, periphrasis is the use of more words than necessary to express an idea. For Isidore, it either "splendidly brings forth truth" or it "avoids foulness by indirection." With respect to the former, he gives the homey example from Aeneid 1.387:
"he plucks the vital airs,"
meaning "he lives." One of the more notable circumlocutions from Virglil to "bring forth truth" is his description of dawn:
"And now, early Aurora was scattering new light on the earth, leaving the saffron bed of Tithonus," Aeneid 4.584.
Circumlocution can also avoid obscenity, as when Virgil says:
"And he sought what was pleasing, relaxed in his wife's embrace," Aeneid 8.405.
Now you ought to have these four tropes under your belt: epithet, antonomasia, onomatopoeia and periphrasis. We are making progress. Now, let's turn to slightly more complex tropes.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long