Tmesis is an interesting rhetorical device that is used, usually, to create humor or emphasis. The word “tmesis” comes from the Greek meaning “to cut”. It refers to an author’s choice to separate a compound word by insert another word in between the parts. This technique does not normally appear in poems and prose with formal diction.
Rather, this technique is used in novels, stories, or poems and which colloquial diction is more appropriate. It is most likely going to pop up in dialogue as one character exclaims about an event or is attempting to emphasize their emotional reaction to someone or something else. By inserting a new word in between an already complete compound word, this speaker is not as much altering its meaning as they are making it stand out amongst the other part of the sentence.
It is often utilized in order to over-exaggerate something. It’s just as a point, making a reader give a line more attention and hopefully a comedic undertone that the reader can appreciate. For example, “Abso-freaking-lutely!” and “un-freaking-believable”.
History of Tmesis
This technique has been around for a long time. There are examples in ancient Greek works as well as in homers Epix, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. There were also examples in classical Latin poetry such as an over its metamorphosis. The device is used to create more complex visual images that would otherwise be possible with the same words. Other examples can be found in old Norse, German and, of course, English.
Examples of Tmesis
Example #1 Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
Take a look at these lines from Act III, Scene 3 in which Ulysses is speaking to Achilles about a “strange” piece of writing:
A strange fellow here
Writes me: ‘That man, how dearly ever parted, 1970
How much in having, or without or in,
Cannot make boast to have that which he hath,
Nor feels not what he owes, but by reflection;
Ulysses describes the content of the letter. It says, “That man, how dearly ever parted…” this is a perfect example of how tmesis can be worked into a piece of writing and make perfect sense. The definition of the device, without examples, seems as though it could be cumbersome or distracting. But, when used correctly and skillfully it fits into a piece of writing flawlessly.
Example #2 Hymn to Christ by John Donne
‘Hymn to Christ’ is a dramatic monologue that compares physical love, which he known for writing about, to spiritual love. He eventually settles upon the latter as the stronger of the two. These four lines from ‘Hymn to Christ’ contain two examples of tmesis. Take a look at them below:
In whattorn shipsoever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem
Whatseasoever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood.
The words ‘Whattorn shipsoever” and “Whatseasoever” stand out right away. The first inserts the words “torn ship” in-between “whatsoever”. The second brings in “sea” in the middle of “whatsoever”.
Discover more John Donne poems.
Example #3 Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Another great tmesis example comes from what is likely Shakespeare’s best-known play, Romeo and Juliet. The line from the play reads:
This is not Romeo, he’s some other where…
Here, Juliet brings in the word “other” to interrupt “somewhere”. This emphasizes the separation between the two. He’s not where she is and she’s not entirely clear where he is either.
Read more romantic works, such as Shakespeare’s best love sonnets.