Breaking Down the Meaning of Catachresis
Catachresis refers to the use of a borrowed term for something that does not have a name of its own (i.e., as we thus speak of, “legs” of a table or the “foot” of a bed). Thus, Catachresis borders on malapropismOpens in new window — mistaking one word for another, or paradiastoleOpens in new window — euphemistic redescription, where there is a misapplication of terms; and functions like a metaphorOpens in new window — implying the comparison of two objects.
However, unlike a metaphor—which enacts a lexical transfer by establishing the equivalence of two terms—catachresis performs its transfers in the face of a missing term, thus without anchoring its meaning in the logic of equivalence.
The catachrestic borrowing of terms occurs under the pressure of necessity : when a proper term is lacking, or when the existing term does not fit literally to the intended description. On this note, QuintilianOpens in new window in his “Institutio OratoriaOpens in new window” (Institute of Oratory) defined Catachresis as “the practice of adapting the nearest available term to describe something for which no actual (proper) term exists.” In like manner, George PuttenhamOpens in new window in his ingenious work, “Arte of English PoesieOpens in new window,” offered: “If for lacke of natural and proper terme or worde we take another, neither natural nor proper, and do untruly applie it to the thing which we would seeme to expresse.”