Teaching, Writing

When a student uses your favorite obscure rhetorical device

I really enjoyed teaching AP Language and Composition for many reasons–if nothing else, I still think everything is an argument. An advertisement is an argument, a speech is an argument, a letter is an argument, a poem is an argument, a novel is an argument, a painting is an argument…someone stop me. But one nice fringe benefit was learning a lengthy list of rhetorical devices. Some you may recognize: rhetorical question, pathos, oxymoron, but some are more obscure: chiasmus, synecdoche, and metonymy. But my absolute favorite is zeugma (pronounced zoog-mah).

Right off the bat, Zeugma draws the eye down there at the end of the list, and that vowel combo is uncommon. It comes from the Greek word “to yoke” or to link together, and it essentially is when you use one word and apply it in two different uses or senses. If you are a millennial, I can prove to you that you already know a zeugma and make you sing at the same time:

You are the bearer of unconditional things
You held your breath and the door for me
Thanks for your patience

Alanis Morissette

Our Lady of 90s Female Rage Alanis Morissette sang these lyrics in “Head Over Feet”. It’s a bit of a deep cut, but I just earwormed a few of you.

So there are two senses of the word “hold” at play here. Holding the door, which would be using your hand to keep a door open, and then holding your breath, which means to trap air in your lungs.

Another example of zeugma: he stole my heart and my camera. The two senses of stole are yoked together.

So imagine my delight when I open a short story that one of my 9th grade students wrote. It’s vivid, the setting is engaging, and then a character is introduced: “Among the mournful crowd of peasants and soldiers stood a man with a heavy armour and a heavier guilt.

Y’all. I gasped! I don’t know if he knows that what he wrote is a zeugma, or if he did it intentionally. I definitely did not directly teach zeugma. But I love, love, love that he wrote a brilliant one. His sentence is a great demonstration of why I love zeugmas: they surprise and pivot. It’s a little switch that delights the mind. It’s also very tight, in that sense that in just one sentence we can visualize his armor, but we also establish that he’s done something bad. Zeugmas make for zippy plot and characterization. In an assignment that limited them to 1000 words, this was a good technique.

Okay, that’s all. Just wanted to say I am here for all zeugma-related content.

One Comments

  • Reply

    Allison Fernambucq

    October 18, 2023

    “You’ve already won me over.” I did *not* know what a zeugma was until now, but now I now know that I love them as well! Yay for rhetorical device content! 😎

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