• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!



Page history last edited by George Pullman 14 years, 7 months ago



This photo of Adrian Peterson with football textured skin could be read as an example of catachresis depending on your reading of the visual metaphor, and the metaphor set forth in Nike's combat ad campaign.

The concept of catachresis has to do with inexact usage of words, and more specifically a combination of words that describes something in a way that slippage occurs if the statement is scrutinized. The word is derived from the Greek word for abuse or misuse, abusio. In Rhetorica Ad Herennium the process is described as, "the inexact use of a like and kindred word in place of the precise and proper one, as follow: 'The power of the man is short..."[1] The misusage is not always inappropriate, especially in the realm of visaul description when we describes things like "the face of the mountain" or the legs of the table." So, in a sense catachresis can be conceptualized in terms of a metaphor. However, the metaphor is a "highly unusual or outlandish comparison between things. This figure moves beyond a metaphor by degrees -- the language used for comparative purposes is strikingly at odds with conventional usage."[2] In Poetria Nova, Geoffrey of Vinsauf characterizes it as, "polite abusio, when neither the proper nor the conventional word is chosen, but rather one that is a neighbor to the proper one."[3]  The consequences of this rhetorical device deal largely with the exchange value of words and phrases in terms of characterizing events or places. Catachresis is a process in which the exchange is not equal, or something is exchanged for nothing.  For example, Marx's dancing table in Capital take catachresis to another level allowing the table to dance about as if its "legs" were animated or anthropomorphized into actual legs.  Catachresis can be read in different ways, whether as an abuse of language or a simple evolution of a phrase or word into a new or alternate usage. One way to look at catachresis positively is that all meanings shift over time as language and usage evolve, and that catachresis is one step in the mutation or evolution of meaning.[4] Negative readings of the process, of course, focus on a supposed bastardization of or mischaracterization of a word or phrase's meaning, and the resulting incommensurability of the symbolic exchange value of the new application with the old one.  Some distinctions as to the significance of these exchanges have been thought about  in the terms of what catachresis is used to name, since the primary function of catachresis has traditionally been to affix a name or an image to something previously unnamed.[5] Samuel Levin makes distinctions as to the nature of catachresis in so far as it names something metaphysical or material, a "pedestrian affair" to his mind, versus naming something that has just come into our consciousness. Levin asserts that language is unequipped to do this in some cases, and that is why catachresis is employed.[6]



This picture when paired with its title engages in catachresis.

[1] Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Hertzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition 2nd Edition. NY: Bedford St. Martin's Press. (2001) p. 267.

[2]  http://www.americanrhetoric.com/figures/catachresis.htm

[3] Bizzell and Hertzberg p.523.

[5] Samuel R. Levin, "Catachresis: Vico and Joyce." Philosophy & Rhetoric 20, no. 2 (Spring1987 1987): 94-105.

[6] Levin p.104.


Comments (2)

Andrew D. Barnes said

at 10:54 pm on Sep 28, 2009

During the Bush administration, the need arose to interpret the law in such a way that techniques traditionally understood as constituting torture, qualified as enhanced interrogation techniques. This interpretation of the law prevented any legal redress from domestic or international law. Opponents of the Bush administration claimed that the law had been tortured in the attempt to legalize torture. Is either the interpretation of the law or the response to the interpretation catachresis?

Sam Perry said

at 10:12 pm on Sep 29, 2009

I would argue that the figurative use of language to describe "torturing the law" is catachresis. The law in this instance is being given the capacity to be tortured, which obviously could only happen in a figurative/metaphorical sense. The former example is rooted in a renaming that does not involve a metaphoric exchange of any sort. Advanced interrogation techniques, while a mislabling of something that has a well established definition seems less like catachresis to me. Catachresis names something, but there has to be an unequivalent exchange resulting from an imprecise use of comparison. Advanced interrogation techniques is not so much imprecise, as it is euphemistic. Think of it in these terms, with Adrian Peterson example Peterson himself is being equivocated with a football. Adrian Peterson is football, rather than Adrian Peterson is a football player. The slippage in meaning is derived from a close approximation, but an innaprorpiate usage of language to describe something. The The examples on the American Rhetoric site that I footnoted are helpful, I think.

You don't have permission to comment on this page.