By Chester Campbell
I’ve had an off-and-on toothache for the past two or three months. You know the feeling. A toothache is like having a bunch of little old men working around your gum line with miniature jackhammers. That’s a simile, of course, one of the most commonly used figures of speech. We use them all the time in conversation as well as our writing.
Did you know there are hundreds of different figures of speech? I don’t recall learning more than a dozen, at most. That was back in high school 60-plus years ago, so I’m not sure what they teach now. Here’s the simple definition for figure of speech from my resident computer dictionary:
“An expression such as a metaphor or simile or a device such as personification or hyperbole in which words are used in a nonliteral way to achieve an effect beyond the range of ordinary language.”
About.com gives an even simpler definition: “a rhetorical device that achieves a special effect by using words in distinctive ways.”
Besides the aforementioned metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole, the figures of speech I recall most vividly include:
Alliteration – repetition of an initial consonant sound
Antithesis – placing contrasting ideas next to each other in balanced phrases
Euphemism – using a term that sounds less offensive
Irony – using words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning
Onomatopoeia (I used to love that word) – using words that mimic the sounds of the objects they refer to
Oxymoron – placing incompatible or contradictory terms side by side
Paradox – a statement that appears to contradict itself
Pun - a play on words, sometimes on different senses of the same word and sometimes on the similar sense or sound of different words.
They say Shakespeare had to memorize more than 200 figures of speech in grammar school, and he probably used all of them in his writing. Ever drop a letter from the end of a word? You were being Shakespearian. It’s called apocope. The Bard used it in The Merchant of Venice with I am Sir Oracle,/ And when I ope my lips let no dog bark!
One I’ve used occasionally and never knew it was a figure of speech is epizeuxis. It’s the emphatic repetition of a word with no others between, as in Location, Location, Location! I’ll bet you’ve used prosopopoeia at sometime or other. It means to represent an imaginary or absent person as speaking or acting; attribute life, speech or inanimate qualities to dumb or inanimate objects. Shakespeare used it here:
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies,
How silently, and with how wan a face!
Figures of speech were originally cataloged by the Greeks and Romans, who referred to them under the categories of schemes and tropes. A scheme is an artful deviation from the ordinary arrangement of words, while the trope refers to an artful deviation from the ordinary or principal signification of words. Personification is a scheme; a simile is a trope.
Google “figures of speech” and you’ll find links to all kinds of arcane listings. A lot of things we write come under that heading, although we were unaware they had a name. Do you make a conscious effort to include figures of speech in your writing, or just let them fall where they may?