All together now: A love-letter to zeugma

“A lamp flickered on. It was Hermione Granger, wearing a pink dressing-gown and a frown.” – JK Rowling (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997)

Zeugma is one of my favourite figures of speech. What I like most is its accessibility and its ubiquity: much like that Zara dress, you see it once and then suddenly start seeing it everywhere. The above Harry Potter quote, whilst not the most highbrow, represents my first knowing encounter with zeugma and therefore holds a special place in my heart. We all have our firsts.

Even if you’ve never heard the term “zeugma” before, you’ll immediately recognise what I mean: the simplest instance is when a single word or phrase joins two parts of a sentence, often with slightly different meanings. In the above quote it’s “wearing”, and it applies to both Hermione’s dressing-gown and her frown.

“[She] went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan chair.”

Charles Dickens (The Pickwick Papers, 1836)


Why “zeugma”?

The rampaging oxen ran through the village (and their farmer ragged)

A nice tidy one, this. ζεῦγμα (pronounced zYEWG-mah) means yoke in Ancient Greek; the two words in the sentence are being yoked together like a hardy pair of oxen.

Another word for the same sort of rhetorical device is syllepsis, but I can’t illustrate syllepsis with a brace of bovine beauties so where, I ask, is the fun in that?

Because it’s a witty, almost punning little addition to a sentence, zeugma works well in speeches (and indeed has a rich pedigree in such – see below). It also affords plenty of opportunity for gentle mockery, as in Hermione’s case above.

Zeugma creates a little punchline within itself, by momentarily confusing the reader (or audience) and forcing them to reread the sentence (or replay it in their mind) in order to be rewarded with the linguistic in-joke that’s just been played.

“Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.”

Alexander Pope (The Rape of the Lock, 1712)

Are you sure it’s a zeugma?

Depending on your source, the scope of the terms zeugma and syllepsis (or even their interchangeability) will vary. The above expression is the simplest and, in my experience, the most commonly encountered. There are, however, other instances in which words are still ‘yoked’ together, though slightly differently.

This is partially dependant on language. Cicero, for instance, is something of a master-yoker, and this is made easier by Latin’s comparatively free word order and comparatively strict word endings. In his Pro Cluentio – a legal speech defending a client accused of poisoning his stepfather – Cicero takes a jibe at his opponent’s ex-wife thus:

vicit pudorem libido timorem audacia rationem amentia 
“Lust conquered shame, audacity [conquered] fear, madness [conquered] reason”

It feels a bit clunky in English but we would nevertheless understand phrases such as I prefer coffee and my wife, tea. Technically this is sometimes known as a prozeugma, a type of zeugma where the ‘yoking’ word occurs at the beginning of the sentence; it’s a mesozeugma when this occurs in the middle and a hypozeugma when at the end.

“He watches afternoon repeats and the food he eats / in the country”

Blur (Country House, 1995)

The first use of zeugma as a rhetorical device in English is recorded as 1450, but the term and its use reach back to Hellenistic Greece (c. 300-150BC).

So there you go. If you weren’t familiar with zeugma before, get ready to start seeing it wherever you go. I hope you enjoyed this blog post, that you leave satisfied, and a polite comment below.

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