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Catachresis is a figure of speech. it occurs when writers use mixed metaphors inappropriately.

Catachresis is used for rhetorical effect and to create a unique, never-before-seen, image or expression. This unnatural comparison uses words incorrectly in regard to the broader context. Often with these examples, it appears that the author has used something incorrectly, but with further interpretation, it becomes clear that the metaphor is far more impactful than it initially seemed. Catachresis is most often seen in post-structuralist literary works where writers are more likely to push the boundaries of writing.

Catachresis pronunciation: kat-uh-kree-sis

Catachresis definition and examples


Definition of Catachresis 

Mixed metaphors are the most common examples of catachresis. When a writer uses them, they’re able to express heightened emotions and extreme feelings. This is seen through the unusual combination of words and figures of speech.

The word “catachresis” comes from the Greek meaning “misuse” or “abuse.” When a reader comes upon an especially compelling use of catachresis, they’re likely to enjoy the writing even more. Overly used and cliche metaphors add nothing to a story, poem, or novel. It’s incredibly appealing to find and/or write new metaphors that have something new to stay about an age-old situation. 


Examples of Catachresis in Literature 

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Hamlet contains an interesting example of catachresis in Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech. While speaking about suicide and contemplating the value of life and death, Hamlet uses the metaphor of a “sea of troubles.” The lines read: 

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

It’s possible to consider the metaphor of a “sea of troubles” and taking “arms against” it as an example of catachresis. Figures of speech are mixed and combined in a new, original way. 


The Tempest by William Shakespeare 

The Tempest also contains a few good examples of catachresis, such as in these lines from Act I Scene 1, in which Gonzalo is speaking. He says: 

I have great comfort from this fellow. 

Methinks he hath no drowning mark upon him. 

His complexion is perfect gallows. Stand fast, good 

Fate, to his hanging. Make the rope of his 

destiny our cable, for our own doth little 

advantage. If he be not born to be hanged, our 

case is miserable.

He uses the phrase “His complexion is perfect gallows” in the third line of this excerpt. He’s trying to imply that Boatswain, who just exited the stage, looks like a criminal and should therefore be executed by hanging. This is a great example of a mixed metaphor as two things are combined that don’t have any obvious similarities. But, when read along with the rest of the text, they make sense and create a new, original-seeming image.

Discover William Shakespeare’s poetry.


somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond by E.E. Cummings 

Cummings is well-known for his experimental use of language. He used clever metaphors throughout his writing. The last stanza of ‘somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond’ reads as follows: 

(i do not know what it is about you that closes

and opens;only something in me understands

the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)

nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

Here, the poet’s speaker makes a strange and surprising comparison between “the voice” of his love’s “eyes” and “roses,” “rain,” and hands. Often with E.E. Cummings’ poetry, it’s necessary to read a line two, three, or four times in order to fully understand what he’s trying to say. He’s trying here to express the power his love has over him. They are an incredibly important part of his life. Other poems that demonstrate Cummings’  use of language include anyone lived in a pretty how townand my father moved through dooms of love.’  

Explore more E.E. Cummings’ poems. 


I cannot live with you by Emily Dickinson

In Emily Dickinson’s well-loved poem, ‘I cannot live with you,’ she uses these lines as the final stanza: 

So We must meet apart –

You there – I – here –

With just the Door ajar

That Oceans are – and Prayer –

And that White Sustenance –

Despair –

In the third, fourth, and fifth lines of this excerpt, she describes two different things that convey hopelessness. She compares them to one another and suggests that they’re more similar than readers might initially think. 

Read more Emily Dickinson poems.


Why Do Writers Use Catachresis?

Writers use catachresis for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it is used in order to create new and original-seeming images and comparisons. When this occurs, readers will be surprised and pleased to read something they’ve never encountered before. The best examples of this are comparisons that seem paradoxical or meaningless at first but, when considered more deeply, actually end up making a lot of sense. “Take arms against a sea of troubles” is a great example. Writers might also use the technique to indicate something different or deeper than the literal interpretation of the word or phrase. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Metaphor: used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it without using “like” or “as.”
  • Extended Metaphor: a literary term that refers to a long metaphorical comparison that can last an entire poem.
  • Simile: a comparison between two, unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as.”
  • Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.
  • Antithesis: occurs when two contrasting ideas are put together to achieve a desired outcome.
  • Oxymoron: a kind of figurative language in which two contrasting things are connected together.


Other Resources 

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