Antiphrasis is a rhetorical device that occurs when someone says the opposite of what they mean but their true meaning is obvious.
The speaker’s intentions are supposed to come through clearly despite the fact that they’ve said the opposite of what they mean. Antiphrasis is usually used in order to create an ironic effect and further emphasize how much the speaker doesn’t mean the thing they said. It can also be used to create a comedic moment.
Definition of Antiphrasis
Antiphrasis originates from the Greek meaning “opposite word.” It is a figure of speech that is concerned with the use of a word or phrase to imply the exact opposite. It is connected to irony and humor.
There are several good examples below, but it is helpful to consider how the device might be used in real life. For example, when one is trying to show one’s dislike for a certain plan or activity, one might say, “Oh yes, that’s exactly what I want to do.” With the tone and context clues, anyone around this person will know that no, that’s not actually what that person wants. The extreme sarcasm inherent in this statement leaves little to the imagination.
In everyday conversations, this technique can be quite beneficial when one wants to make their opinion crystal clear. It should be noted that sometimes this technique is harder to get across in writing than it is in theatre, film, or within one’s everyday life. The way someone says the words often makes a big difference.
Examples of Antiphrasis in Literature
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s masterful history play that focuses on Caesar’s downfall, as well as the lives of Mark Antony, Cassius, and Brutus. The following lines can be found:
He had a fever when he was in Spain,
And when the fit was on him, I did mark
How he did shake. ‘Tis true, this god did shake!
His coward lips did from their color fly,
In these lines, which are located in Act I Scene 2, the writer uses an example of antiphrasis when the speaker, Cassius, calls Caesar a god. He reveals his true thoughts in the last line when he uses the word “coward” instead. By contrasting the two, it’s clear how passionately Cassius feels about this opinion.
There is another good example later on in the play, in Act III Scene 2. Here are the lines:
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
Here, the speaker, Mark Antony, calls Brutus’ honor into question while at the same time using the word “honorable.” This is a great example as an actor’s delivery of the line is going to add a great deal to the lines’ reception.
In ‘The Unknown Citizen,’ Auden uses the following lines:
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
This poem, which takes the form of a dystopian report, uses lines like: “Had anything been wrong” as a way of confirming for the reader that yes, a great deal was wrong. The subject of this poem, an “unknown citizen” (which is itself an example of antiphrasis considering how well the state knows him), is being monitored and tracked. The citizen was for peace when there was peace and for war when there was war. He followed the rules and made sure that he never stood out.
Read more of W.H. Auden’s poetry.
“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe
In this well-loved short story by Edgar Allan Poe, the writer describes an interaction between Fortunato and Montresor and the former’s unfortunate end. The following lines are found in the short story:
It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was the thought of his immolation.
In these chilling lines, Montresor describes his treatment of Fortunato. He gave him a “smile” that showed his “good will.” When in fact, he intends to show him no good will and is leading him towards his death.
Read Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Antiphrasis?
Writers use antiphrasis in order to bring additional meaning to short stories, plays, essays, and other genres of literature.
When it’s used, readers are asked to pay extra attention to how the speaker is talking and what they really mean with what they said. This extra emphasis then makes their words all the more important. It can also help to draw a better contrast between the two opposite sides. When a character makes a statement that includes antiphrasis, the writer is able to reveal more of their personality and help the reader better understand how opposed they are to one action, emotion, or other feature of the story. Also, due to the fact that the technique is used frequently in everyday life, it can bring realism to any situation.
Related Literary Terms
- Irony: occurs when an outcome is different than expected. It is possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.
- Sarcasm: a type of verbal irony that expresses contempt, mocks, or ridicules.
- Tone: how the writer feels about the text, at least to an extent. All forms of writing, aside from the academic, have a tone of some sort.
- Mood: the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
- Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.