Friday, 24 July 2020


Alexander Pope

One finds eighteenth-century literary devices in unusual places.

Recently, I was captivated by a line in a message from my Australian friend, George. In describing his wife’s activities, he wrote,  

She walks vigorously with purpose and sometimes with friends.

Witty fellow though he is, he may not have realized that he was employing a variation of the classical device known as zeugma. The word in Greek means “yoking”. Zeugma is the linking of two nouns with a common verb — or in this case, a verb with a preposition, “walk with” — for comic or satiric purpose. 

Usually, the verb is used in a different sense with each noun, as in the example,

She lost her keys, and her heart,

and this provides the ironic effect.

Perhaps the most famous example of zeugma is to be found in Alexander Pope’s mock heroic poem, “The Rape of the Lock”, the “rape” being the seizing of a lock of hair from the heroine, Belinda. (The word “rape” comes from the Latin rapere, meaning “to snatch, grab, carry off”, and this is its earlier English meaning here.)

Throughout the stanza below, Pope mocks his heroine by juxtaposing the trivial and the profound, suggesting that to her they are of equal importance: a China jar or her chastity, her honour or a dress, her prayers or a masked ball. 

Whether the Nymph shall break Diana's Law, 
Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw, 
Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade
Forget her Pray'rs, or miss a Masquerade, 
Or lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball....

Through the zeugma in the third and fifth lines, Pope makes fun of his heroine. George was merely being witty.

Have your friends been using the device lately, zeugma, I mean?

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