Zeugma – Rhetorical Technique Used by Master Writers

Zeugma – Rhetorical Technique Used by Master Writers

What is a Zeugma? Zeugma is a rhetorical device where a single word is made to refer to two or more words in a sentence, often playing on the words’ literal and metaphorical meanings.

“Smiling with a crooked smile that did little to hide his crooked intentions and crooked teeth, he said ‘Trust me.'”

The verb ‘To hide’ controls two other words: intentions and teeth. But what is worthy of note in this zeugma is the juxtaposition of an abstract noun (intentions) to a concrete one (teeth).Observe how Cervantes uses the conjugated verb ‘triumphs’:

Now, however, sloth triumphs over diligence, idleness over work, vice over virtue, arrogance over valor, and theory over the practice of arms which lived and shone only in the Golden Age and in the time of the knights errant (Cervantes 465).

And the verb ‘found’:

I found her enchanted, transformed from a princess into a peasant, from beautiful to ugly, from an angel into a devil, from fragrant into foul-smelling, from well spoken into rustic, from serene into skittish, from light into darkness, and, finally from Dulcinea of Toboso into a lowborn farmgirl from Sayago (Cervantes 671).

With this simple device Cervantes adds delight and color to the narrative-by means of antithesis-at the same time that cultivates the reader’s attentiveness, forcing him to put two and two together to grasp the intended meaning.

Zeugma used in a humorous vein:

Lenox said, “Hog, the only thing you save is your breath when you eat.” After two unsuccessful marriages, I find myself keeping my guard up, along with my underpants (Grafton, C is for Corpse 15).

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, we note Portia’s saucy speech: How oddly he is suited [outfitted]! I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany, and his behavior everywhere. (Act I, scene ii, line 72-72).

Zeugma used to set the tone of a book, as in The Vicar of Wakefield:

From this motive, I had scarce taken orders a year before I began to think seriously of matrimony, and chose my wife as she did her wedding gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well (Goldsmith 4).

Zeugma in Dialogue:

“Eliot, Michael’s untimely departure leaves us with a space both in our house and in our hearts” (Segal 112). “To our beloved new leader Jason Gilbert, ace racket-man and incomparable ass-man. May his shots in court drop as often as his shorts in bed” (Segal 143).

The governing word may be a noun as well as a verb, as we see in the following examples from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, where the controlling word is the noun ‘hand’:

“Calpurnia was something else again. She was all angles and bones; she was nearsighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard (7)” and the controlling word is the verb ‘lost’ in the following example:

“Mrs. Radley had been beautiful until she married Mr. Radley and lost all her money. She also lost most of her teeth, her hair, and her right forefinger (Dill’s contribution) (39).”

From the above examples we infer that zeugmas may be employed to give the narration an air of lighthearted humor or banter. Just as the fool in Shakespearean dramas breaks the solemnity of the scene with parody and foolery, so does Cervantes in Don Quijote:

At this moment a gelder of hogs happened to arrive at the inn, and as he arrived he blew his reed pipe four or five times, which confirmed for Don Quixote that he was in a famous castle where they were entertaining him with music, and that the cod was trout, the bread soft and white, the prostitutes ladies, the innkeeper the castellan of the castle, and that his decision to sally forth had been a good one (Cervantes 29).

When a zeugma joins concrete and abstract nouns, the combinations can stir up the reader’s emotions. Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried is replete with this type of zeugmas:

As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet (3). He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men (5). But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear (6).

See how Gabriel Garcia Marquez creates atmospheric tension with the use of one governing verb, ‘listening’:

He got dressed by feel, listening in the dark to his brother’s calm breathing, the dry cough of his father in the next room, the asthma of the hens in the courtyard, the buzz of the mosquitoes, the beating of his heart, and the inordinate bustle of a world that he had not noticed until then, and he went out in the sleeping street (Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude 27).

We haven’t exhausted the topic, for there are other zeugma derivatives that depend on what slot of the sentence the zeugma is placed in; but their sophistication can cause ambiguity and confusion; therefore we do not recommend their use.