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Metalepsis is a figure of speech that occurs when a writer uses a phrase or word in a new context. The chosen phrase or word comes from a different figure of speech.

Metalepsis is also sometimes known as transumption. Readers will quickly find that this figure of speech is closely related to idioms, maxims, aphorisms, and even metaphors how phrases and words are reused in new contexts. The most commonly quoted example takes its originating word/phrase from the maxim “The early bird catches the worm.” Taking the words “catches the worm” out of this phrase, one can create a new sentence: “I’ll make sure to catch the worm this morning.” With a prior understanding of the original figure of speech, the second one makes sense. 

Metalepsis pronunciation: metah-lep-sis

Metalepsis definitino and examples


Definition of Metalepsis 

Metalepsis is an interesting figure of speech that sounds more complicated than it is. Writers use this figure of speech when referencing a prior figure of speech. For example, when writing, one might reuse a portion of a phrase or saying (such as a well-known metaphor, idiom, or maxim) in a new way. For instance, saying “He got the bone” is a reference to the saying, “They’re like the dog who got the bone.” It implies the same meaning but is more concise and original-seeming. This literary technique can be quite interesting when used in new ways, especially considering how overused some are.


Examples of Metalepsis in Literature

Macbeth by William Shakespeare 

Throughout William Shakespeare’s body of work, there are numerous interesting examples of metalepsis. They often occur as he creates a new figure of speech and uses an element from that example in order to create yet another figure of speech. This can occur several times in a passage and can be one of the reasons why readers have a hard time with his verse. 

The following lines from Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, are some of the best when it comes to successful examples of metalepsis in literature. They appear in the famed “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech in Act V Scene 5. 

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

Through these lines, Shakespeare personifies time and life while depicting it moving from “day to day.” It’s quite easy to take an excerpt from these lines and utilize it in a new way or from another passage in the play. For example, the following lines Lady Macbeth uses: 

Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

These are incredibly famous lines, and it’s easy to take an excerpt such as “Out, damned spot” and use it in a new way. For example, saying “Out, out, spot” while cleaning. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry. 


Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe 

Doctor Faustus, also known as The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, is an Elizabethan play written by Christopher Marlowe. He based the story around German folk tales about a man named Faustus who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for keeping a demon as a servant for a period of years. The following lines come from the play and include an allusion to Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War story. 

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wertenberg be sack’d; 

In these lines, Marlowe reuses the famed metaphor that describes Helen of Troy as having a “face that launched a thousand ships.” This original figure of speech alludes to Helen as the cause of the Trojan war. Marlowe uses the phrase in this passage and then expands it, mentioning Troy, Paris, and eventually Achilles, Menelaus, and more. 

Discover Christopher Marlowe’s poetry.


Why Do Writers Use Metalepsis? 

Metalepsis is an incredibly creative way to extend a metaphor, allude to a well-known saying (such as proverb, idiom, metaphor, or maxim), and create a new saying, one that feels more original. Most well-known phrases and sayings are hard to use in new and creative ways. That’s part of the reason why using metalepsis can make one’s writing feel more interesting if a certain overused figure of speech needs to be included. It is also a way of making the reader think just a little bit more, create an example of intertextuality, and make the writing feel more alive. 


Related Literary Terms 


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