An Introduction to Hypallage

Hypallage (also known as transferred epithet; derives from the Greek word hypallagḗ, literally “interchange”), is a syntactical construction in which the natural relation of words is inversely placed, or two words interchanged from a logical to a rather absurd relationship.

PuttenhamOpens in new window, who calls hypallage, the changeling, defines this device as a figure in which an exchange of words change the “true contruction and application” of a statement so that “the sense is quite perverted and made very absurd.” Puttenham’s examples of hypallage are:

  • the transformation of “tell me troth and lie not” into “lie me troth and tell not”; and
  • the transformation of “come dine with me, and stay not” into “come stay with me and dine not.”

Notable Examples — The following examples bear typical features of hypallage—a syntactic modification, that unsettles the reader. You might want to pause and take a glass of water before continuing.

Hypallage TransformationNormal Word Order
  • Apply the wound to water.
  • Apply water to the wound.
  • The cattle has grazed the rain.
  • The rain has grazed the cattle.
  • The fire spread the wind
  • The wind spread the fire.
  • The clothe measuring the yard.
  • The yard measuring the clothe.
Notable Examples in Literature
  • “There one goes, unsullied as yet, in his Pullman pride, toying – oh boy! – with a blunderbuss bourbon, being smoked by a large cigar, riding out to the wide-open spaces of the faces of his waiting audience”
  • (Dylan Thomas, Quite Early One Morning, p.149).

    The above passage, concerning a British author crossing the U.S. on a lecture tour, contains hypallage involving a change of mood where passive mood is transformed for active.
  • “On the idle hill of summer
    Sleepy with the flow of streams
    Far I hear...”
  • (A.E. Housman, On the idle hill of summer)

    In the above verse, sleepy is a hypallage: it is the narrator, not the hill, who exhibits these features.
  • “The eye of man hath not heard,
    the ear of man hath not seen,
    man's hand is not able to taste,
    his tongue to conceive,
    nor his heart to report,
    what my dream was.”
  • (Williams Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream)

    In the just concluded verse, the character Bottom tries to recall the dream he has had, misquoting scripture in the process. Hypallage is deployed here by aligning sense organs with improper sensations.

As with the figure, enallageOpens in new window, hypallage is an apparent mistake. All changes of grammatical function are not valid cases of hypallage. Puttenham, who calls hypallage the changeling, points out that the user of this figure perverts meaning by shifing the application of words: ‘… as he should say, for … come dine with me and stay not, come stay with me and dine not’ (cited by Joshep, p.295). — courtesy: (A Dictionary of Literary Devices; Gradus, A – Z, Bernard Marine Dupriez.)