Zeugma: Your Ultimate Guide

Posted on Aug 14, 2023

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There are certain words in the literary landscape that, despite being both interesting and useful, seem to fly under the radar and turn up in articles like this as a surprise. Zeugma is likely to fit that bill. 

In this article we will be taking a look at exactly what zeugma is, how writers can use it and some of the most notable examples of its usage in literature. By the end, you should be an expert in all things zeugma and well placed to either recognise it as a reader or include it in your own work as a writer.

This ultimate guide to Zeugma covers:

  1. What is zeugma?
  2. Etymology of zeaugma
  3. History of zeugma in literature
  4. Notable examples of zeugma
  5. Mistakes to avoid when using zeugma
  6. Zeugma final thoughts

What is zeugma?

Zeugma is a rhetorical device in which a single word, usually a verb or an adjective, is used to modify or govern two or more words, typically in a sentence. This device creates a connection between different parts of the sentence in a clever or unexpected way, often resulting in a play on words or a witty effect.

Zeugma involves using a word with multiple meanings or applying a word to different parts of the sentence in a way that makes sense in both instances, but often produces a humorous or striking effect due to the unexpected combination. Here is an example:

“She stole my heart and my wallet.”

In this sentence, the word “stole” is used in two different contexts: stealing someone’s heart emotionally and stealing someone’s wallet physically. This creates a connection between two different ideas using a single word, making it a zeugma.

Zeugma can add a layer of complexity and creativity to language, often found in literature, poetry, and humor.

Etymology of zeugma

The term “zeugma” comes from the Greek word ‘ζεῦγμα’ (zeugma), which means “a yoking” or “a joining together.” In rhetoric, it refers to the yoking or joining of different words or phrases with a single word that applies to them in different ways. The term was adopted into Latin as “zeugma” and has been used in English and other languages to describe this rhetorical device since ancient times.

History of zeugma in literature

The use of zeugma in literature dates back to ancient times and it has been a popular rhetorical device employed by writers, poets, and orators to add complexity, vividness, and wit to their work. Here is a brief overview of the history of zeugma in literature:

Ancient Greek and Roman Literature

Zeugma was used by ancient Greek and Roman writers such as Homer, Virgil, and Cicero. In Homer’s “Iliad,” there are instances of zeugma that demonstrate its use in epic poetry. For example, in Book 5, Homer writes, “They covered the earth with their shields and themselves with glory.” Here, the verb “covered” applies both to the action of shielding the earth and achieving glory.

Shakespearean Literature

William Shakespeare frequently employed zeugma in his plays and sonnets to create memorable and impactful lines. In “Julius Caesar” there is a well-known example in the line, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” The verb “lend” is applied to both “ears” and “attention,” creating a connection between the physical act of lending ears and the metaphorical act of lending attention.

18th and 19th Century Literature

Zeugma continued to be used in literature during the 18th and 19th centuries. Writers like Alexander Pope and Charles Dickens utilized this device to create humor, irony, and emphasis. In Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” he writes, “She looked at the object with a mixture of curiosity and distaste,” where the verb “looked” applies to both “curiosity” and “distaste.”

Modern and Contemporary Literature

Zeugma remains a stylistic device employed by modern and contemporary writers. It is often used in literature to evoke emotions, establish contrasts, and convey complex meanings in a concise manner. Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut and J.K. Rowling have used zeugma to enhance their writing.

Notable examples of zeugma

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“Yet time and her aunt moved slowly — and her patience and her ideas were nearly worn our before the tete-a-tete was over.”

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

“They tugged and tore at each other’s hair and clothes, punched and scratched each other’s nose, and covered themselves with dust and glory.”

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

“He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.”

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

“He was alternately cudgeling his brains and his donkey.”

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson

“The queen of England sometimes takes advice in that chamber, and sometimes tea.”

Marcus Tullius In Verrem by Marcus Tullius Cicero

“You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.”

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

“You are free to wear what you want and eat what you can.”

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

“We were partners not soulmates, two separate people who happened to be sharing a menu and a life.”

Mistakes to avoid when using zeugma

Using zeugma effectively can add depth and creativity to your writing, but there are some potential pitfalls to watch out for. Here are five mistakes to avoid when using zeugma:

Lack of Clarity

Zeugma often relies on the reader understanding the dual meanings of a word within the context of the sentence. If the word’s meaning is unclear or the connection is too convoluted, it can confuse the reader and detract from the intended impact.

Forced or Unnatural Usage

Zeugma should feel organic within the sentence. Avoid forcing the use of a word to fit multiple meanings if it does not flow naturally. Overusing zeugma can also make your writing feel contrived.

Inconsistent Tone or Mood

Zeugma can introduce humor, wit, or surprise to your writing, but it is important to maintain a consistent tone and mood. If the zeugma creates an unintended shift in tone, it can disrupt the reader’s engagement.

Lack of Relevance

Zeugma should enhance the meaning of your writing, not distract from it. Ensure that the zeugma contributes to the overall message, theme, or atmosphere of the piece. Irrelevant usage of zeugma can appear gimmicky.

Overusing Zeugma

While zeugma can be a powerful tool, using it excessively can diminish its impact. Reserve zeugma for moments where it truly adds value, rather than employing it in every sentence. A well-placed zeugma can stand out more than a barrage of them.

Remember that effective writing involves balancing creativity with clarity and coherence. Zeugma should serve the purpose of your writing and contribute to the reader’s understanding and engagement, rather than distracting or confusing them.

Zeugma in literature – final thoughts

Zeugma stands as a testament to the artful interplay of language and meaning, that when used well, elevates writing to an entirely new level. From classical works to modern prose, zeugma’s usage has entertained, amused and intrigued readers all throughout time.

Yet, like any literary device, its potency lies in its prudent application. When writers are choosing to use zeugma in their work, it is important that they remember that this device works best when used carefully and sparingly so it lands with maximum impact.

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