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10 Literary Terms You Might Not Know

Megan Branch, Intern

Hyperbole, allusion, alliteration. These are all familiar words to anyone with a basic knowledge of literary terms. Although English majors the world over probably feel like they have literary terms coming out of their ears, they might have difficulty coming up with the definition for lipogram or clerihew, never mind writing one. In the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Chris Baldick defines over 1200 words, covering the difference between a simile and a metaphor and everything in between. Here are 10 words from the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms that even an English major might have trouble defining.

1. Adynaton A figure of speech related to hyperbole that emphasizes the inexpressibility of some thing, idea, or feeling, either by stating that words cannot describe it, or by comparing it with something (e.g. the heavens, the oceans) the dimensions of which cannot be grasped.

An example from Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby is ‘Language was not powerful enough to describe the infant phenomenon.’ It is often a rhetorical index of the sublime.

2. Clerihew A form of comic verse named after its inventor, Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956). It consists of two metrically awkward couplets, and usually presents a ludicrously uninformative ‘biography’ of some famous person whose name appears as one of the rhymed words in the first couplet:

Geoffrey Chaucer
Could hardly have been coarser,
But this never harmed the sales
Of his Canterbury Tales

3. Hemistich A half-line of verse, either standing as an unfinished line for dramatic or other emphasis, or forming half of a complete line divided by a caesura. In the second sense, the hemistich is an important structural unit of the early Germanic alliterative metre. In verse drama, dialogue in which characters exchange short utterances of half a line is known as hemistichomythia…

4. Feuilleton A French term for the literary section of a daily newspaper: originally the lower part of the front page, devoted to drama criticism, but later a separate page or pages. The roman-feuilleton is a novel serialized in a newspaper; this form flourished in France in the 1840s, bringing great financial rewards to Balzac, George Sand, Dumas père , and other authors.

5. Jouissance The French word for ‘enjoyment’ (often used in a sexual sense), employed by the critic Roland Barthes in his Le Plaisir du texte (1973) to suggest a kind of response to literary works that is different from ordinary plaisir (pleasure). Whereas plaisir is comfortable and reassuring, confirming our values and expectations, jouissance—usually translated as ‘bliss’ to retain its erotic sense—is unsettling and destabilizing. The distinction seems to stand in parallel with Barthes’s preference for those fragmentary or dislocated texts which he called scriptible rather than lisible, that is, those that challenge the reader to participate in creating them rather than just consume them.

6. Flyting A slanging match in verse, usually between two poets who insult each other alternately in profanely abusive verses. The finest example from the strong Scottish tradition is the early 16th-century Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie. The term has also been applied to the boasting matches between warriors in some epic poems…

7. Fabliau A coarsely humorous short story in verse, dealing in a bluntly realistic manner with stock characters of the middle class involved in sexual intrigue or obscene pranks. Fabliaux flourished in France in the 12th and 13th centuries, and were usually written in octosyllabic couplets; some 150 French examples survive, most of them anonymous. They were imitated in English by Chaucer (in rhyming pentameters), notably in his Miller’s Tale and Reeve’s Tale. Many fabliaux involve satire against the clergy. A standard plot is the cuckolding of a slow-witted husband by a crafty and lustful student…

8. Obiter dicta The Latin phrase (‘things said in passing’) sometimes used to refer to the table-talk or incidental remarks made by a writer or other person, of the kind recalled in biographies.

9. Lipogram A written composition that deliberately avoids using a particular letter of the alphabet. Examples have been found in ancient Greek poetry, but the most extravagant curiosities of this pointless game include Alonso Alcalá y Herrera’s Varios effectos de amor (1641)—a sequence of five novellas each eschewing a different vowel, J.R. Ronden’s play La Pièce sans A (1816), and Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition (1969; later translated into English as A Void), which dispenses with e. Lipograms are extremely rare in English, although one Ernest Wright managed a 50,000-word novel, Gadsby (1939), without using e.

10. Hapax legomenon A now archaic term of scholarly commentary derived from the Greek (‘once-only expression’) and applied to a word or phrase of which only one recorded example has been found, also known as a nonce usage.

Recent Comments

  1. Levi Stahl

    These are wonderful; a few were familiar, but most were all new. I love their specificity!

    Your list reminds me of one of the surprise pleasures of Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, when, near the end, the young poet Garcia Madero reveals a hitherto unknown, and seemingly encylopedic, knowledge of obscure poetic forms. Again and again the novel has commemorated the forgotten, and Garcia Madero’s loving invocation of all these forlorn forms serves as one last, totally unexpected memorial.

  2. Book Calendar


    T.H. White
    Was always right
    Because he writes
    From left to right

    a try anyway

  3. Percy Bisque Silly

    Dear Ms. Branch,

    I am O’ercome Leaf, Root and Branch; Hook, Line and Sinker.

    Woulds’t Thou think to marry me?

    With trepidation and reflux,

    Percy B. Silly

  4. Robert W. Franson

    Perhaps it is just the way my mind works (or plays hooky), but so often this literary jargon invites glimpses through odd windows:
    Adynaton – an inarticulate sailor aboard the Argo.
    Clerihew – a bird with a silly song.
    Hemistich – embroidery on a poetess’ costume.
    Feuilleton – a harmless French anarchist.
    Jouissance – a castle in a France of fantasy.
    Flyting – fighting flights of fancy.
    … and so on.

  5. […] speaking of literary escapes, via the Practicing Writing blog, I came across this list of obscure literary terms. Fun stuff!! Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Interview: […]

  6. […] 10 Literary Terms You Might Not Know (oup.com) […]

  7. Elizabeth

    Wonderful. The only one I’d know before was “fabliau.” It’s weird that there’s even a name for the last one. For a while it must have been one itself!

  8. […] Lipogram: a written composition that deliberately avoids using a particular letter of the alphabet […]

  9. Literary Terms

    Fabliau [f_ˈa_b_l_ɪ__ˌaʊ], [fˈablɪˌa͡ʊ], [fˈablɪˌa‍ʊ]

    Definitions of Fabliau:
    One of the metrical tales of the Trouveres, or early poets of the north of France.

    Usage examples for Fabliau:
    “ The fabliau motive of the first is happily contrasted with the character of Lamira and the friendship of Clerimont and Dinant; while no play has so many of Fletcher’s agreeable young women as Monsieur Thomas. ”
    – A History of English Literature Elizabethan Literature by George Saintsbury

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