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Catachresis (from Greek κατάχρησις, "abuse"), originally meaning a semantic misuse or error—e.g., using "militate" for "mitigate", "chronic" for "severe", "travesty" for "tragedy, "anachronism" for "anomaly", "alibi" for "excuse", etc.—is also the name given to many different types of figures of speech in which a word or phrase is being applied in a way that significantly departs from conventional (or traditional) usage.[1]


There are various subdefinitions of catachresis.

Definition Example
Crossing categorical boundaries with words, because there otherwise would be no suitable word.[2][3] The sustainers of a chair being referred to as legs.
Replacing an expected word with another, half rhyming word, with an entirely different meaning from what one would expect (cf malapropism, Spoonerism).[4] I'm ravished! for "I'm ravenous!" or for "I'm famished!" "They build a horse" instead of they build a house.
The strained use of an already existing word or phrase.[5] "Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon's purse" — Shakespeare, Timon of Athens
The replacement of a word with a more ambiguous synonym.[6] Saying job-seeker instead of "unemployed".


Dead people in a graveyard being referred to as inhabitants is an example of catachresis.[7]

Classification in literature[edit]

Catachresis is often used to convey extreme emotion or alienation. It is prominent in baroque literature and, more recently, in dadaist and surrealist literature.

Example from Alexander Pope's Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry:

Masters of this [Catachresis] will say,

Mow the beard,
Shave the grass,
Pin the plank,
Nail my sleeve.[8]

Derrida, Spivak[edit]

In Jacques Derrida's ideas of deconstruction, catachresis refers to the original incompleteness that is a part of all systems of meaning. He proposes that metaphor and catachresis are tropes that ground philosophical discourse. Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak applies this word to "master words" that claim to represent a group, e.g., women or the proletariat, when there are no "true" examples of "woman" or "proletarian". In a similar way, words that are imposed upon people and are deemed improper thus denote a catachresis, a word with an arbitrary connection to its meaning.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Anshuman Sharma. The Impact - The Art of Communicating Eloquently. Anshuman Sharma. p. 78. ISBN 978-1-105-99521-7.
  2. ^ Max Black discusses this phenomenon at some length, designating them catachrestic substitution metaphors: Black, M., Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy, Cornell University Press, (Ithaca), 1962.
  3. ^ Jeremy Stolow (14 November 2012). Deus in Machina:Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between. Fordham Univ Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-8232-4980-0.
  4. ^ "Henry Peachum., The Garden of Eloquence (1593): Tropes, part Tropes, Catachresis". Retrieved 2013-05-13.
  5. ^ John Van Sickle (29 December 2010). Virgil's Book of Bucolics, the Ten Eclogues Translated into English Verse: Framed by Cues for Reading Aloud and Clues for Threading Texts and Themes. JHU Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-8018-9961-4.
  6. ^ Paul Maurice Clogan (1 January 1997). Historical Inquiries. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-8476-8674-2.
  7. ^ Jonathan Arac (2011). Impure Worlds: The Institution of Literature in the Age of the Novel. Fordham Univ Press. p. 143. ISBN 978-0-8232-3178-2.
  8. ^ Pope, Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry, x


  • Ghiazza, Silvana (2007). Le figure retoriche. Bologna: Zanichelli. p. 350. ISBN 978-88-08-16742-2.
  • Morton, Stephen (2003). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. London: Routledge. p. 176. ISBN 0-415-22934-0.
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. p. 677. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.