Catachresis

Definition of Catachresis

Catachresis is a figure of speech in which writers use mixed metaphors in an inappropriate way to create rhetorical effect. Often, it is used intentionally to create a unique expression. Catachresis is also known as an exaggerated comparison between two ideas or objects.

Features of Catachresis

Mixed metaphors are good examples of catachresis and writers often use them to create rhetorical effects. They are used to express extreme alienation or heightened emotions. Catachresis is considered as a mistake in language as it may change the meanings of words. It is a combination of different types of figures of speech. It is prominently used in post-structuralist literary works, since those writers were expert in using wordplay and creating confusion in literary texts, which is an important part of catachresis.

Some Forms of Catachresis

  • Sometimes a word is used to indicate something completely different from the literal meaning of that word. Such as in this example, “Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse; that is, one may reach deep enough, and find little” (Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare).
  • Sometimes a word is used to indicate something whose actual name is not used like, “A chair’s arm.”
  • Sometimes a paradoxical statement is used to create illogical strained metaphors. Such as, “Take arms against a sea of troubles…”
  • Abusio is a subtype of catachresis, which results from the combination of two metaphors.

Examples of Catachresis from Literature

Example #1

A man that studies revenge keeps his own wounds green….

(On Revenge by Francis Bacon)

Bacon uses metaphorical language by comparing revenge with wounds. The writer has made a connection between seemingly unconnected topics. However, catachresis is creating a rhetorical effect in this serious text.

Example #2

I do not ask much:
I beg cold comfort….

(King John by William Shakespeare)

We can find numerous catachresis examples in Shakespeare’s works as he regularly used mixed metaphors intentionally in his literary writings. Here, he has used catachresis, “cold comfort”.

Example #3

With just the Door ajar
That oceans are
—and Prayer—
And that White Sustenance–Despair—

(Poem 640 by Emily Dickinson)

In the first and second lines, we can see the paradox in phrases that are shown in bold. These describe two differing distances that spread hopelessness. In the same way, “white sustenance” means colorless nourishment that actually does not nourish the body.

Example #4

Hamlet: …..Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Here, Hamlet is just thinking futilely after facing a sea of problems. In this way, Shakespeare has used a straight metaphor, albeit taken as a catachresis here.

Example #5

The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses –
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands….

(somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond by E.E. Cummings)

In this extract, the poet is making an illogical comparison between the voice of his beloved’s eyes with roses and rain with the hands. The poet is trying to express the power of his beloved over him and her importance to him.

Example #6

His complexion is perfect gallows…..—

(The Tempest by William Shakespeare)

In the given line, a character Gonzalo is implying that Boatswain looks like a criminal, and must be hanged. Here, “perfect gallows” is used as a mixed metaphor. The two objects are compared, though there is no obvious similarity between them.

Example #7

Mow the beard,
Shave the grass,
Pin the plank,
Nail my sleeve…..

(Peri Bathous by Alexander Pope)

In the above example, the metaphoric words are shown in bold. The literal and metaphorical meanings can be understood in the context which the poet is describing as: know-how, capacities, dispositions and skills.

Function of Catachresis

Catachresis can be used both in poetry as well as prose. In poetry it is used by misusing a phrase or word to deliberately create a mixed metaphor. Poets use catachresis to achieve a stylistic effect or exert great compression in both comic as well as serious writing. Also, sometimes it is used to create a reference that did not exist but the major reason of using this technique is to express the ideas in a unique and creative way.

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