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Metalepsis (from Greek: μετάληψις) is a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from figurative speech is used in a new context.[1]


  • "I've got to catch the worm tomorrow."
    • "The early bird catches the worm" is a common maxim, advising an early start on the day to achieve success. The subject, by referring to this maxim, is compared to the bird; tomorrow, the speaker will awake early in order to achieve success.
  • " He's been rescued from the rabbit hole."
    • The adage "fall down the rabbit hole" refers to being deeply invested in a specific topic. In this example, being rescued from the rabbit hole adapts the original meaning to convey that someone has stopped being deeply invested in a specific topic.

In Icelandic literature[edit]

The word twikent (twice-kenned) is used for once-removed metalepsis involving kennings.[2] If a kenning has more than three elements, it is said to be rekit ("extended").[2] Kennings of up to seven elements are recorded in skaldic verse.[3] Snorri Sturluson characterises five-element kennings as an acceptable license but cautions against more extreme constructions:

Níunda er þat at reka til hinnar fimtu kenningar, er ór ættum er ef lengra er rekit; en þótt þat finnisk í fornskálda verka, þá látum vér þat nú ónýtt. "The ninth [license] is extending a kenning to the fifth determinant, but it is out of proportion if it is extended further. Even if it can be found in the works of ancient poets, we no longer tolerate it." — Snorri Sturluson[4]

nausta blakks hlé-mána gífrs drífu gim-slöngvir "fire-brandisher of blizzard of ogress of protection-moon of steed of boat-shed" — from Þórálfs drápa Skólmssonar, by Þórður Sjáreksson (this is the longest kenning found in skaldic poetry; it simply means "warrior".[5])

Other uses[edit]

For the nature of metalepsis is that it is an intermediate step, as it were, to that which is metaphorically expressed, signifying nothing in itself, but affording a passage to something. It is a trope that we give the impression of being acquainted with rather than one that we actually ever need. — Quintilian[6]

But the sense is much altered & the hearer's conceit strangely entangled by the figure Metalepsis, which I call the farfet, as when we had rather fetch a word a great way off than to use one nearer hand to express the matter as well and plainer. — George Puttenham[7]

In a metalepsis, a word is substituted metonymically for a word in a previous trope, so that a metalepsis can be called, maddeningly but accurately, a metonymy of a metonymy. — Harold Bloom[8]


In narratology (and specifically in the theories of Gérard Genette), a paradoxical transgression of the boundaries between narrative levels or logically distinct worlds is also called metalepsis.

Perhaps the most common example of metalepsis in narrative occurs when a narrator intrudes upon another world being narrated. In general, narratorial metalepsis arises most often when an omniscient or external narrator begins to interact directly with the events being narrated, especially if the narrator is separated in space and time from these events.[9]

There are so many examples of forking-path and metaleptic narratives by now that any recommendations will have to seem arbitrary. One of the most thoroughly enjoyable constructions of enigmatic worlds within worlds is Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962). A good short text is Robert Coover's The Babysitter (1969). In film, a frequently referenced forking-path narrative is Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors (1998).[10]

[In Tom] Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, the framing diegetic situation is here equally a theatre. In this fictional theatre a whodunnit is performed, witnessed by an audience which includes two theatre critics. In the course of the embedded performance these critics become paradoxically involved in the hypodiegetic play within a play, an involvement which even leads to the death of one of them. Thus, as in the case of Pirandello's Sei personaggi, the typical traits of a metalepsis can here also be recognized: a fictional representation consisting of several distinct worlds and levels, among which unorthodox transgression occur.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Joseph Hardy Towne; William Hague; Parsons Cooke (1842). The Baptismal Question: A Discussion of the Baptismal Question. Gould, Kendall and Lincoln. pp. 2. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  2. ^ a b Faulkes (1999), p. 5/12.
  3. ^ "Fjórkennt". Archived from the original on 2001-04-14. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  4. ^ Faulkes 1991, 8:29–31; Faulkes 1987, 172.
  5. ^ Kari Ellen Gade (ed.) 2012, ‘Þórðr Særeksson (Sjáreksson), Þórálfs drápa Skólmssonar 1’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, p. 237. “The warrior-kenning in the second helmingr is the most complex extended kenning in the extant corpus of skaldic poetry.”
  6. ^ "Book 8, Chapter 6: Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory". Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2012-03-04.
  7. ^ Puttenham, George (1569), The Arte of English Poesie
  8. ^ Bloom, Harold (1975), A Map of Misreading, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-516221-9
  9. ^ Estes, Douglas (2008), The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel, Brill
  10. ^ H. Porter, Abbott (2008), The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press
  11. ^ Wolf, Werner (2005), Metalepsis as a Transgeneric and Transmedial Phenomenon. In: Narratology Beyond Literary Criticism, ed. by Jan Christoph Meister., De Gruyter