From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Adynaton (/ˌædɪˈnɑːtɒn, -tən/;[1] plural adynata) is a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility:[2]

  • "I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one on his cheek."[3]

The word derives from the Greek ἀδύνατον (adunaton), neuter of ἀδύνατος (adunatos), "unable, impossible" (a-, "without" + dynasthai, "to be possible or powerful").[4]

Classical and medieval usage[edit]

Adynaton was a widespread literary and rhetorical device during the Classical Period. In the Eclogue of Plutarch, there is a long list of proverbs and the first section is titled ΠΕΡΙ ΤΩΝ ΑΔΥΝΑΤΩΝ, consisting of proverbs that are built on adynaton.[5] The adynaton form was often used for vows and covenants, such as in the 16th Epode of Horace, 25-34.

Its plural form (adynata) was translated in Latin as impossibilia. A frequent usage was to refer to one highly unlikely event occurring sooner than another:

One can expect an agreement between philosophers sooner than between clocks.

Zenobius's collection of proverbial expressions includes "to count sand" to characterize something impossible or unattainable.[6]

However it largely fell into disuse during the Middle Ages before undergoing a minor revival in the works of romantic poets, who would boast of the power of their love, and how it could never end.

Together, we shall sooner see, I, & you, The Rhône tarry, & reverse its course, The Saône roil, & return to source, Than this my fire ever die down

Fiction, folklore and drama[edit]

Adynata are sometimes used within works of fiction or drama:

Part heat from fire, then, by that notion,
Part frost from snow, wet from the ocean!
Ask less!

Impossible tasks appear often in legends and folklore, and can form elements of ballads, riddles and proverbs. Examples include: the tale of "The Spinning-Woman by the Spring",

Modern usage[edit]

Some modern adynata include:

  • In Bulgarian: когато цъфнат налъмите (kogato tsâfnat nalâmite, "when the clogs blossom")[7] and когато върбата роди круши (kogato vârbata rodi krushi, "when pears grow on a willow tree").[8] koga se pokači svinja s z´´lti čehli na krusa (when the pig in yellow slippers climbs the pear tree[9]
  • In Canadian English: "When the Leafs win the Cup".[citation needed]
  • in Dutch: Als Pasen en Pinksteren op één dag vallen ("when Easter and Pentecost are the same day");[10] from a poem by Gerrit Komrij: "Eer maakt men lakens wit met inkt (...) dan dat ik (...) zeg wat ik thans lijden moet" ("Sooner will sheets be bleached with ink (...) than my suffering revealed by me"). "Op St. Juttemis" ("On St. Jutmas", i.e. the feast day of a nonexistent saint)
  • In English: When pigs fly!,[11] and Not before Hell freezes over![12] and its derivative A snowball's chance in hell.[13] When the moon turns to green cheese.[9]
  • in Finnish: kun lehmät lentävät ("when cows fly") or kun lipputanko kukkii ("when flagpole blossoms") [14]
  • In French: Quand les poules auront des dents ("When hens grow teeth"), La semaine des quatre jeudis ("The week of the four Thursdays") .[15] "À la St. Glinglin" (on the feast day of the nonexistent St. Glinglin); "Aux calendes grecques" (on the Greek Kalendae, which of course only existed on the Roman calendar)
  • In German: Wenn Schweine fliegen könnten ("When pigs can fly"); Wenn Ostern und Weihnachten zusammenfallen ("When Easter and Christmas coincide")[16]
  • in Hungarian: majd ha piros hó esik ("when it's snowing red")[17]
  • in Romanian: La Paştele Cailor ("on horses' Easter")[18]
  • In Italian: Quando gli asini voleranno ("When donkeys fly").[19]
  • In Latvian: Kad pūcei aste ziedēs ("When an owl's tail blooms")[20]
  • In Malay: Tunggu kucing bertanduk ("when cats grow horns").[21]
  • In Malayalam: "കാക്ക മലർന്നു പറക്കും (kākka malarnnu paṟakkuṃ)" ("When [the] crow will fly upside down").[22]
  • In Polish: Prędzej mi kaktus na dłoni wyrośnie ("Sooner the cactus grows on my palm.").
  • In Portuguese: quando as galinhas tiverem dentes ("when chickens grow teeth"),[23] quando chover canivete ("when it rains pocketknives"), nem que a vaca tussa ("not even if the cow coughs"),[24] no dia de São Nunca ("on the day of St. Never").[25]
  • In Russian: когда рак на горе свистнет (kogdá rak na goré svístnet, "when the crawfish whistles on the mountain").[26]
  • In Serbian or Croatian: kad na vrbi rodi grožđe ("when grapes grow on a willow").[27]
  • In Slovak: keď budú padať traktory ("when tractors will fall") or na svätého dindi ("On St.Dindi" probably taken from French.)
  • In Spanish: Cuando las vacas vuelen ("When cows fly"),[28] instead of "las vacas" the words "los chanchos" are also used, replacing "the cows" with "the pigs" or, in Spain (presumably) there could also be used Cuando las ranas críen pelo ("When the frogs grow hairs") [29]
  • in Swedish: två torsdagar i veckan ("two Thursdays in the same week"). It is also said as "two Sundays in the same week", but other weekdays are rarely used.[30]
  • In Turkish: balık kavağa çıkınca ("when fish climb poplar trees").[31]
  • In Persian: vaght-e gol-e ney ("when bamboo blossoms") [32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "adynaton". Lexico UK Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 21 August 2020.
  2. ^ Stephen Cushman; Clare Cavanagh; Jahan Ramazani; Paul Rouzer (26 August 2012). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition. Princeton University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-4008-4142-4. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  3. ^ Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2
  4. ^ ἀδύνατος, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  5. ^ p. 390. Rowe, Gary. 1965. The adynaton as a stylistic device. The American Journal of Philology 85.4:387-396.
  6. ^ William F. Hansen, Ariadne's Thread: A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature, p. 98
  7. ^ Keti Nicheva (1987). Bŭlgarska frazeologii︠a︡. Nauka i izkustvo. p. 99. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  8. ^ M. Leonidova (1986). Problemy strukturno-semanticheskoĭ tipologii bolgarskikh i russkikh frazelogizmov. Gos. izd-vo Narodna Prosveta. p. 155. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  9. ^ a b )[1]
  10. ^ Leon Gillet. Spaans Idiomaticum Herbekeken. Spaans-Nederlands. Academia Press. pp. 185–. ISBN 978-90-382-1141-1. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  11. ^ Christine Ammer (1997). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Houghton Mifflin. p. 709. ISBN 978-0-395-72774-4. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  12. ^ Paul Heacock (22 September 2003). Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms. Cambridge University Press. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-521-53271-6. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  13. ^ The Free Dictionary - not have a snowball's chance in hell. Retrieved on 2013-07-15.
  14. ^ kun lehmät lentävät - Sivistyssanakirja, synonyymit - Suomi Sanakirja. Retrieved on 2013-05-27.
  15. ^ Roy Fuller (1 January 2000). Animal Idioms. Presses Univ. du Mirail. p. 122. ISBN 978-2-85816-539-1. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  16. ^ Derrick De Kerckhove; Martina Leeker; Kerstin Schmidt (2008). McLuhan neu lesen: Kritische Analysen zu Medien und Kultur im 21. Jahrhundert. transcript Verlag. p. 485. ISBN 978-3-89942-762-2. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  17. ^ Éva Szabó (2005). Hungarian Practical Dictionary: Hungarian-English, English-Hungarian. Hippocrene Books. p. 431. ISBN 978-0-7818-1068-5. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  18. ^ Mioara Avram; Marius Sala (2000). May We Introduce the Romanian Language to You?. Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House. p. 157. ISBN 978-973-577-224-6. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  19. ^ Matthew Lawry (25 July 2012). The Phonetic Guide to Italian: Learn Italian in about a Year. AuthorHouse. p. 285. ISBN 978-1-4772-1927-0. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  20. ^ Dzidra Kalnin̦a (2003). Angl̦u-latviešu, latviešu-angl̦u vārdnīca. Avots. ISBN 978-9984-700-90-8. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  21. ^ Ainon binti Mohd & Abdullah bin Hassan (2005). Kamus Peribahasa Kontemporari - Edisi Ke-2. PTS Professional. p. 431. ISBN 978-983-3376-38-4. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  22. ^ Kattakada. "Malayalam Adynation". Wikisource. Wikimedia. Retrieved 22 August 2015.
  23. ^ Cristina Mourón Figueroa; Teresa Moralejo Gárate (1 January 2006). Studies in Contrastive Linguistics: Proceedings of the 4th International Contrastive Linguistics Conference, Santiago de Compostela, September, 2005. Univ Santiago de Compostela. p. 361. ISBN 978-84-9750-648-9. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  24. ^ Azussa Matsuoka; Luciene Ferreira da Silva Guedes (November 2009). "Análise das construções idiomáticas negativas enfáticas" (PDF). Gatilho (in Portuguese). Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora.
  25. ^ Mark G. Nash; Willians Ramos Ferreira (2009). Michaelis Dicionário de Expressões Idiomáticas (Dictionary). Editora Melhoramentos. p. 151. when pigs fly Amer dit (...) Algo como: 'quando a galinha criar dentes'; no dia de São Nunca.
  26. ^ Agnes Arany-Makkai (1 September 1996). Russian Idioms. Barron's. p. 222. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  27. ^ Željko Bujas (1999). English-Croatian dictionary. Globus. p. 487. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  28. ^ Rafael Ordozgoiti de la Rica; Ignacio Pérez Jiménez (1 January 2003). Imagen de marca. ESIC Editorial. p. 147. ISBN 978-84-7356-342-0. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  29. ^ “Cuando la rana eche pelos”… ¡y realmente lo hizo! ~ Culturizando. Retrieved on 2013-05-27.
  30. ^ Hjalmar Bergman (1952). Samlade skrifter: Farmor och vår herre. Bonnier. p. 137. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  31. ^ Hacettepe University journal of the Faculty of Letters. Hacettepe Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi. 2001. p. 50. Retrieved 24 September 2013.
  32. ^ [2]

References and further reading[edit]