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Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds of nearby words in a phrase, often used as a literary device. An example is "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers".

Historical use[edit]

The word alliteration comes from the Latin word littera, meaning "letter of the alphabet". It was first coined in a Latin dialogue by the Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano in the 15th century.[1]

Alliteration is used in the alliterative verse of Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, Old Saxon, and Old Irish. It was an important ingredient of the Sanskrit shlokas.[2][3] Alliteration was used in Old English given names.[4] This is evidenced by the unbroken series of 9th century kings of Wessex named Æthelwulf, Æthelbald, Æthelberht, and Æthelred. These were followed in the 10th century by their direct descendants Æthelstan and Æthelred II, who ruled as kings of England.[a] The Anglo-Saxon saints Tancred, Torhtred and Tova provide a similar example, among siblings.[5]

Today, alliteration is used poetically in various languages around the world, including Arabic, Irish, German, Mongolian, Hungarian, American Sign Language, Somali, Finnish, and Icelandic.[6] It is also used in music lyrics, article titles in magazines and newspapers, and in advertisements, business names, comic strips, television shows, video games and in the dialogue and naming of cartoon characters.[7]

Types of alliteration[edit]

In literature, alliteration is the repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive or closely associated syllables within a group of words.[8][9][10][11] Some literary experts also consider the repetition of vowel sounds,[11] or repetition at the end of words to be alliteration.[8] Alliteration narrowly refers to the repetition of a letter in any syllables that, according to the poem's meter, are stressed,[12][13] as in James Thomson's verse "Come . . . dragging the lazy languid line along".[14]

Consonance is a broader literary device identified by the repetition of consonant sounds at any point in a word (for example, coming home, hot foot).[15] Alliteration is a special case of consonance where the repeated consonant sound is in the stressed syllable.[16] Alliteration may also refer to the use of different but similar consonants,[17] such as alliterating z with s, as does the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or as Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poets would alliterate hard/fricative g with soft g (the latter exemplified in some courses as the letter yogh – ȝ – pronounced like the y in yarrow or the j in Jotunheim).[citation needed]

Head rhyme or initial rhyme is a method of linking words for effect;[9] for example, "humble house", "potential power play",[10] "picture perfect", "money matters", "rocky road", or "quick question".[18][19] A familiar example is "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers".

Symmetrical alliteration is a specialised form of alliteration which contains parallelism,[20] or chiasmus. In this case, the phrase must have a pair of outside end words both starting with the same sound, and pairs of outside words also starting with matching sounds as one moves progressively closer to the centre. For example, "rust brown blazers rule" or "fluoro colour co-ordination forever". Symmetrical alliteration is similar to palindromes in its use of symmetry.

Examples of use[edit]


Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado contains a well-known example of alliterative lyrics:[21]
"To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a lifelong lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!"[22]


  • In "Thank-You for the Thistle" by Dorie Thurston, poetically written with alliteration in a story form: "Great Aunt Nellie and Brent Bernard who watch with wild wonder at the wide window as the beautiful birds begin to bite into the bountiful birdseed".
  • In the nursery rhyme Three Grey Geese by Mother Goose, alliteration can be found in the following lines: "Three grey geese in a green field grazing. Grey were the geese and green was the grazing."
  • The tongue-twister rhyme Betty Botter by Carolyn Wells is an example of alliterative composition: "Betty Botter bought a bit of butter, but she said, this butter's bitter; if I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter, but a bit of better butter will make my bitter batter better..."
  • Another commonly recited tongue-twister rhyme illustrating alliteration is Peter Piper: "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?".


Poets can call attention to certain words in a line of poetry by using alliteration. They can also use alliteration to create a pleasant, rhythmic effect. In the following poetic lines, notice how alliteration is used to emphasize words and to create rhythm:

"Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling!' Walt Whitman, "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun"

"They all gazed and gazed upon this green stranger,/because everyone wondered what it could mean/ that a rider and his horse could be such a colour-/ green as grass, and greener it seemed/ than green enamel glowing bright against gold".[b] (232-236) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Bernard O'Donoghue (In the original, and in J. R. R. Tolkien's translation, this poem in fact follows an alliterative meter.)

"Some papers like writers, some like wrappers. Are you a writer or a wrapper?" Carl Sandburg, "Paper I"

Alliteration can also add to the mood of a poem. If a poet repeats soft, melodious sounds, a calm or dignified mood can result. If harsh, hard sounds are repeated, on the other hand, the mood can become tense or excited. In this poem, alliteration of the s, l, and f sounds adds to a hushed, peaceful mood:

"Softer be they than slippered sleep the lean lithe deer the fleet flown deer."


Alliteration has been used in various spheres of public speaking and rhetoric. It can also be used as an artistic constraint in oratory to sway the audience to feel some type of urgency,[25] or another emotional effect. For example, H or E sounds can soothe, whereas a P or a B sound can be percussive and attention-grabbing.[citation needed] S sounds can imply danger or make the audience feel as if they are being deceived.[26] Other sounds can create feelings of happiness, discord, or anger, depending on context.[citation needed] Alliteration serves to "intensify any attitude being signified".[27]: 6–7 

An example is in John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, in which he uses alliteration 21 times. The last paragraph of his speech is given as an example here.

"Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth God's work must truly be our own." — John F. Kennedy[28]

Other examples of alliteration:

  • "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." — Martin Luther King Jr.[29]
  • "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth". — Barack Obama.[30]
  • "And our nation itself is testimony to the love our veterans have had for it and for us. All for which America stands is safe today because brave men and women have been ready to face the fire at freedom's front." — Ronald Reagan, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Address.[31]
  • "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". — Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address.
  • "Patent portae; proficiscere!" ("The gates are open; depart!") — Cicero, In Catilinam 1.10.

Translation can lose the emphasis developed by this device. For example, in the accepted Greek text of Luke 10:41[32] the repetition and extension of initial sound are noted as Jesus doubles Martha's name and adds an alliterative description: Μάρθα Μάρθα μεριμνᾷς (Martha, Martha, merimnas). This is lost in the English NKJ and NRS translations "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things."

Music lyrics[edit]

  • "Helplessly Hoping" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young has rich alliteration in every verse.
  • "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Bob Dylan employs alliteration throughout the song, including the lines: "Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free/ Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands."
  • "Mother Nature's Son" by The Beatles includes the line: "Swaying daisies sing a lazy song beneath the sun."
  • "Spieluhr" by Rammstein includes a spoken line: "Das kleine Herz stand still für Stunden" (eng. "The little heart stood still for hours).
  • "Fairyland Fanfare" by Falconer has a part that alliterates the "l" over 30 times: "Live the legend, live life all alone/ Longing to linger in lore/ Illuminating a lane/ That leads you aloft/ You're lost to the lunar lure/ Leave the languish/ Leave lanterns of lorn/ Lend lacking lustre to lies/ Liberate the laces/ Of life for the lone/ Lest lament yet alights“

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Old English "Æthel" translates to modern English "noble". For further examples of alliterative Anglo-Saxon royal names, including the use of only alliterative first letters, see for example:Yorke, Seaby 1990, Table 13 (p. 104; Mercia, names beginning with "C", "M", and "P") or Seaby 1990, pp. 142–3 (Wessex, names beginning with "C") For discussion of the origins and purposes of Anglo-Saxon "king lists" (or "regnal lists"), see for example Dumville 1977
  2. ^ The original in Middle English was:[23]

    For vch mon had meruayle quat hit mene myȝt
    Þat a haþel and a horse myȝt such a hwe lach,
    As growe grene as þe gres and grener hit semed,
    Þen grene aumayl on golde glowande bryȝter.


  1. ^ Clarke 1976.
  2. ^ Langer 1978.
  3. ^ Jha 1975.
  4. ^ Gelling 1988, pp. 163–4.
  5. ^ Rollason 1978, p. 91.
  6. ^ Roper 2011.
  7. ^ Coard 1959, pp. 30–32.
  8. ^ a b Beckson & Ganz 1989.
  9. ^ a b Carey & Snodgrass 1999.
  10. ^ a b Crews 1977, p. 437.
  11. ^ a b Harmon 2012.
  12. ^ "Alliteration, University of Tennessee Knoxville". Archived from the original on 2013-04-24. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  13. ^ "Definition of Alliteration,". Archived from the original on 2013-07-03. Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  14. ^ Thomson 1986.
  15. ^ Baldick 2008, p. 68.
  16. ^ "alliteration".
  17. ^ Stoll 1940.
  18. ^ "Alliteration - Examples and Definition of Alliteration". Literary Devices. 2021-01-29. Retrieved 2021-06-29.
  19. ^ Meredith 2000.
  20. ^ Fussell 2013, p. 98.
  21. ^ Wren 2006, p. 168.
  22. ^ The Mikado libretto, p. 16, Oliver Ditson Company
  23. ^ Tolkien & Davis 1995.
  24. ^ Techniques Writers Use
  25. ^ Bitzer, Lloyd (1968). "The Rhetorical Situation". Philosophy and Rhetoric.
  26. ^ "Literary Devices: Alliteration". Author's Craft. Retrieved 2014-09-26.
  27. ^ Lanham, Richard (1991). A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-520-27368-9.
  28. ^ "4 things that made JFK's Inaugural Address so effective". Speak Like A Pro.
  29. ^ "I Have A Dream Speech Analysis Lesson Plan". Flocabulary. 2012-01-11.
  30. ^ "Obama's Alliteration". The Rhetorician's Notebook. 2013-01-21.
  31. ^ "Rhetorical Figures in Sound: Alliteration".
  32. ^ The Greek New Testament, 4th rev ed, ed. Kurt Aland, et al (Stuttgart: UBS, 1983), 247 n 7.


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