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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]

Variant definitions[edit]

There are various characterizations of catachresis found in the literature.

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 (or a partly sound-alike) word, with an entirely different meaning from what one would expect (cf malapropism, Spoonerism, aphasia).[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 (cf euphemism).[6] Saying job-seeker instead of "unemployed".


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

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]

Use 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.[citation needed]

Use in philosophy and criticism[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.[9][citation needed]

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[by whom?] thus denote a catachresis, a word with an arbitrary[clarification needed] connection to its meaning.[citation needed]

In Calvin Warren's Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation,[10] catachresis refers to the ways Warren conceptualizes the figure of the black body as vessel or vehicle in which fantasy can be projected. Drawing primarily from the "Look a Negro" moment in Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, Chapter 5: "The Fact of Blackness",[11] Warren works from the notion that "the black body…provides form for a nothing that metaphysics works tirelessly to obliterate", in which "the black body as a vase provides form for the formlessness of nothingness. Catachresis creates a fantastic place for representation to situate the unrepresentable (i.e., blackness as nothingness).

In the 20th century, other philosophers embraced the view that metaphorical "category mistakes" or "sort-crossings" such as catachresis also have the potential of leading unsuspecting users into considerable obfuscation of thought within the realm of epistemology. Included among them is the Australian philosopher Colin Murray Turbayne.[12] In his book The Myth of Metaphor, Turbayne argues that the use of metaphor is actually essential to any language system which claims to embody richness and depth of understanding.[13] He also demonstrates, however, the dangers associated with literal interpretations of several metaphorical constructs which prevail in the modern scientific materialism of the Western world including: the mechanistic Cartesian and Newtonian depictions of the universe as little more than a "machine", [14] and the concepts of "substance" and "substratum".[15][16][14] He further argues that modern man has unknowingly fallen victim to such metaphors through the repeated utilization of literal interpretation and has therefore needlessly rejected alternative metaphorical formulations which may be more beneficial in nature.[17][14]

See also[edit]


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


  1. ^ Anshuman Sharma (16 April 2014). 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 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962).
  3. ^ Pierre Fontanier, Les Figures du discours (Paris: Flammarion, 1977 [orig. 1821–1830]), p. 214.
  4. ^ "Henry Peachum., The Garden of Eloquence (1593): Tropes, part Tropes, Catachresis". Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  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
  9. ^ Clarification needed: the tradition of Sausserian linguistics in which Derrida works holds that the relation between all signifiers and their signifieds is an arbitrary one.
  10. ^ Warren, Calvin (2018). Ontological Terror Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-8223-7087-1.
  11. ^ Frantz Fanon, "The Fact of Blackness," in: his Black Skin, White Masks, c. 5.
  12. ^ Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers Shook, John. 2005 p. 2451 Biography of Colin Murray Turbayne on Google Books
  13. ^ Murphy, Jeffrie G. "Berkeley and the Metaphor of Mental Substance." Ratio 7 (1965):176.
  14. ^ a b c Hesse, Mary (1966). "Review of The Myth of Metaphor". Foundations of Language. 2 (3): 282–284. JSTOR 25000234.
  15. ^ Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers Shook, John. 2005 p. 2451 Biography of Colin Murray Turbayne on Google Books
  16. ^ The University of Rochester Department of Philosophy- Berkley Essay Prize Competition - History of the Prize Colin Turbayne's The Myth of Metaphor on
  17. ^ The University of Rochester Department of Philosophy- Berkley Essay Prize Competition - History of the Prize Colin Turbayne's The Myth of Metaphor on