Definition of Tmesis

Tmesis is derived from a Greek word tmēsis that means “to cut”. It is a rhetorical device. It involves the breaking down of a phrase or a word into two parts. In simpler words, tmesis is an insertion of a word between a word, a compound word or a phrase (phrasal verbs usually). It is a practice of dividing a phrase or word into its components by inserting another word in the middle of that phrase or word. Tmesis is commonly employed in words that have more than three syllables. Let us examine these two examples of tmesis to have a better understanding of this device.

I. Eliza Dolitttle: “Fan-bloody-tastic” or “abso-blooming-lutely” (Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw).

Here, the words “fantastic” and “absolutely” are separated by the the words “bloody” and “blooming”, respectively.

II. “How-heinous-ever it be, ” (Richard II by William Shakespeare).

The word, however, is separated by the word “heinous”.

Classification of Tmesis

Tmesis examples may be classified according to the device’s two main groups. The first group of tmesis is formed from cutting phrasal verbs. For example, the phrasal verb “turn off” can be cut into two parts by inserting another word, such as “radio”, to form the phrase“turn the radio off”). The meaning of the phrasal verb in this example is retained. In other instances, however, it may change. Another category of English tmesis is formed by adding an infix in modifiers. A good example for this is, “I got forty-bloody-seven /and that’s good e-bloody-nough” (Tumba Bloody Rumba by John O’Grady).

Examples of Tmesis from Literature

Example #1

“This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.”

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

In the following extract, “somewhere” is split up by inserting the word “other”. The purpose of splitting up the word is to highlight and draw the focus of readers to the fact that Romeo is not there but somewhere else.

Example #2

“In whattorn shipsoever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem
Whatseasoever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood.”

(Hymn to Christ by John Donne)

This is a very good example of phrasal verb tmesis. “Whatsoever” is split into two parts by inserting the words, “torn ship”. The same is done in the third line, where the word “sea” is inserted in the middle of the compound word.

Example #3

old age sticks
up Keep
signs) &

youth yanks them
cries No

Tres) & (pas)
youth laughs
old age

scolds Forbid
den Stop
n’t Don’t

&) youth goes
right on
owing old

(Old Age Sticks by E.E Cummings)

Cumming has used plenty of tmesis in his works. This poem is a good example. The phrasal verb “yanks down” is split apart by the word “them”. This split up of words is used for artistic purpose.

Example #4

“That man–how dearly ever parted.”

(Troilus & Cressida by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare uses tmesis in his literary pieces. Here, the insertion of the word “dearly” to “however” emphasizes the fond feeling that the speaker has towards the dead person.

Example #5

“It’s a sort of long cocktail–he got the formula off a barman in Marrakesh or some-bloody-where.”

(Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis)

The word “somewhere” is divided by the word “bloody”. This inserted word makes the readers focus on the speaker’s “I don’t care” attitude towards the origin of where the formula.

Function of Tmesis

Tmesis is mainly used to create humor and lay emphasis on a particular word or phrase. The Romans and Greeks used tmesis for special effects in literature. In comedy, it works as over-done exaggeration. In poetry, its task is to stress a point as it forces the readers to give more attention to the cut phrase or line. It is regularly used in informal speech, as well.
In Australian English, it is called “tumba rumba”.

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