From 'Hamlet' to 'The Tempest', how Shakespeare used catachresis as a grammar tool

It's another one of those terms only grammarians would know

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 21 Sep 2023, 7:23 PM

Since we’ve discussed mixed metaphors, it’s time to graduate to an advanced version of them — catachresis, another one of those terms only grammarians know. Catachresis is a figure of speech in which writers use mixed metaphors, sometimes intentionally, to create rhetorical effect (something Shakespeare was an expert at) but more often, inappropriately or awkwardly (the rest of us). The most common example of the latter is when people jumble up two common expressions that shouldn’t go together (like “he grabbed the bull by the horns of a dilemma”), or confuse two words that sound alike but don’t mean the same thing (confusing “mitigate” with “militate”, for instance, or mixing up “reluctant” and “reticent”).

When it’s used literally, catachresis can be an effective literary device, as Shakespeare repeatedly demonstrated. Scholars often quote this line from Timon of Athens: “’Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse; that is, one may reach deep enough, and find little”. Depth, winter, and purse do not, at first glance, go together, but in Shakespeare’s hands the catachresis is strikingly effective. Or his well-known phrase from Hamlet, “to take arms against a sea of troubles.” How can any arms be effective against a raging sea? And yet the catachresis has entered the language as a familiar phrase. In his play King John, he gave us another memorable example of the genre, when the King says, “I do not ask much: I beg cold comfort …” How can anything cold be comforting, You might well ask, but Shakespeare has given us an expression still in everyday use.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the character Gonzalo remarks of the Boatswain, “His complexion is perfect gallows.” He is implying that the Boatswain looks like a criminal and must be hanged. The catachresis lies in the fact that someone’s complexion and the hangman’s gallows seemingly have nothing to do with each other, yet the mixed metaphor works.

But here’s the catch: does it always? When Shakespeare’s Hamlet says “I will speak daggers to her”, is he confusing the common expression “to look daggers at someone”, meaning to stare at someone in a very angry way, with the common phrase “I will speak harshly to her”? Or are we to say that because it’s Shakespeare, it’s brilliant, but if you or I used the phrase “I will speak daggers to her” we would be laughed at for mixing metaphors inappropriately?

Matters are made worse by the fact that the very origins of the term catachresis lie in the Greek words katakhrēsis or katakhrēsthai meaning ‘misuse or abuse’, and that the Latin name for catachresis is Abusio. So if catechresis is an abuse or misuse of language, why are literary scholars celebrating it? The British newspaper The Guardian, famous for its misprints, once issued a correction noting, “Attentive readers will have noticed a lamentable catachresis yesterday when we referred to some French gentlemen as Galls, rather than Gauls.” So the word “catachresis” here serves as a synonym for “error”. And indeed that is an acceptable usage, since the mixup of two words by a speaker or writer mistaking one for the other is also called catachresis. Grammarians will include, in discussions of catachresis, such sentences as “He looked at the price and his pockets ran dry.” Or “his lie was the straw that broke the elephant’s back.” Or even using words in the wrong sense, as in the angry wife expostulating, “Can’t you hear that? Are you blind?”

And yet, I am not prepared to leave Shakespeare stranded on the shores of Abusio. Because other wonderful poets and writers have also resorted to catachresis to marvellous effect. When I was courting the lady who became my children’s mother, a literature student herself, she introduced me to a poem by e e cummings (a poet who famously did not use Capital Letters, not even in his name!) which had the wonderful lines “The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses –/nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands”. I loved the lines since my lady love had small hands, but eyes don’t have voices and rain has no hands. Catachresis at its best!

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