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Polyptoton /ˌpɒlɪpˈttɒn/ is the stylistic scheme in which words derived from the same root are repeated (such as "strong" and "strength"). A related stylistic device is antanaclasis, in which the same word is repeated, but each time with a different sense.[1] Another related term is figura etymologica.[2]

Other definition[edit]

In inflected languages polyptoton is the same word being repeated but appearing each time in a different case. (for example, "Iuppiter", "Iovis", "Iovi", "Iovem", "Iove" [in Latin being the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative forms of "Iuppiter" (the god Jupiter), respectively]).


The form is relatively common in Latin Christian poetry and prose in a construction called the superlative genitive, in phrases such as sanctum sanctorum ("holy of holies"), and found its way into languages such as Old English, which naturally preferred the prevalent alliteration that is part and parcel of polyptoton—in fact, polyptoton is "much more prevalent in Old English verse than in Latin verse." The specific superlative genitive in Old English, however, occurs only in Latinate Christian poems, not in secular poetry.[3]

Historical instances and usages[edit]

It is also used in public speaking, and several examples can be found in Churchill's speeches.[4]

G. K. Chesterton frequently employed this device to create paradox:

It is the same with all the powerful of to-day; it is the same, for instance, with the high-placed and high-paid official. Not only is the judge not judicial, but the arbiter is not even arbitrary.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Man on Top (1912)[5]

In combination with verbal active and passive voices, it points out the idea of a latent reciprocity:

Judge not, that ye be not judged

— Matthew 7:1[6]

An alternative way to use the device is to develop polyptoton over the course of an entire novel, which is done in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Shelley combines polyptoton with periphrastic naming, which is the technique of referring to someone using several indirect names. The creature in Frankenstein is referred to by many terms, such as "fiend", "devil", "being", and "ogre". However, the first term that Shelley uses in reference to the creature is "wretch". Throughout the novel, various forms of this are used, such as "wretchedly" and "wretchedness", which may be seen as polyptoton. According to Duyfhuizen, the gradual development of polyptoton in Frankenstein is significant because it symbolizes the intricacies of one's own identity.[7]


  • "Who shall watch the watchmen themselves?" (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) — Juvenal
  • "Thou art of blood, joy not to make things bleed." — Sir Philip Sidney
  • "With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder." — William Shakespeare, Richard II II,i,37
  • "The Greeks are strong, and skillful to their strength / Fierce to their skill, and to their fierceness valiant" — William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida I, i, 7-8
  • "Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds / Or bends with the remover to remove." — William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
  • "The greatest weakness of all weaknesses is to fear too much to appear weak." — Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
  • "Do not listen to the reasoners; there has been too much reasoning in France, and reasoning has banished reason." — Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France, criticizing the Cult of Reason during the French Revolution
  • "People complain of the despotism of princes; they ought to complain of the despotism of man. We are all born despots." — Joseph de Maistre, Against Rousseau
  • "Deep into that darkness peering / Long I stood there wondering, fearing / Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before." — Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
  • "The expropriators are expropriated." — Karl Marx, Das Kapital
  • "To be ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of the ignorant." — Amos Bronson Alcott
  • "Diamond me no diamonds, prize me no prizes…" — Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Lancelot and Elaine
  • "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." — Lord Acton
  • "If we lose our sanity, we can but howl the lugubrious howl of idiots, the howl of the utterly lost howling their nowhereness." — D. H. Lawrence
  • "The healthy man does not torture others—generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers." — Carl Jung
  • "There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing / No end to the withering of withered flowers / To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless / To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage / The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable / Prayer of the one Annunciation." — T. S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages
  • "Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired." — Robert Frost
  • "Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are." — John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.
  • "The young are generally full of revolt, and are often pretty revolting about it." — Mignon McLaughlin
  • "Reality isn’t made of matter, but what matters." — Jordan Peterson
  • "What was done to me was monstrous. And they created a monster." — V in V for Vendetta
  • "Secrets aren't secret. They're just hidden treasures, waiting to be exploited." — Stephen White, Dry Ice
  • "I am a disciple of discipline!" — David Goggins
  • "I am tired of guys messaging me how they feel. Leave the feelings to the girls; that’s what they do. We act; we’re men of action." – Andrew Tate

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Polyptoton - Definition and Examples of Polyptoton". Literary Devices. 2014-03-31. Retrieved 2021-04-19.
  2. ^ "RHETORICAL TERMS | Dickinson College Commentaries". dcc.dickinson.edu. Retrieved 2021-04-19.
  3. ^ Fleming, Damian (2012). "Rex regum et cyninga cyning: 'Speaking Hebrew' in Cynewulf's Elene". In Michael Fox; Manish Sharma (eds.). Old English Literature and the Old Testament. Toronto: U of Toronto P. pp. 229–52. ISBN 9780802098542.
  4. ^ "A Rhetorical analysis of Winston Churchill's speech: We Shall Fight on the Beaches" (PDF).
  5. ^ Farnsworth 2011, p. 72.
  6. ^ Farnsworth 2011, p. 63.
  7. ^ Duyfhuizen, Bernard (1995). "Periphrastic Naming In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein". Studies in the Novel. 27 (4): 477.


  • Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford University Press, New York, 1971.
  • Ward Farnsworth (2011). Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. David R. Godine Publisher. pp. 63–73. ISBN 978-1-56792-385-8.
  • Toswell, M. J. “Polyptoton in Old English Texts.” Early English Poetic Culture and Meter: The Influence of G. R. Russom, edited by M. J. Toswell and Lindy Brady, pp. 111–130. Medieval Institute Publications, Kalamazoo, 2016. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvvnccj.11.