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What is 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).

The term catachresis, therefore, 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.

Notable Examples of Catachresis

  1. “The President's decision yesterday, to set into motion the development of the hydrogen bomb, has placed us on a knife edge of history.”

    — (Henry Martin JacksonOpens in new window)

  2. “This instrument [TV] can teach; it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it's nothing but wires and lights in a box.”

    — (Edward R. MurrowOpens in new window, RTNDA After-Dinner Address)

  3. “I recently listened to a thoughtful big city [police] chief express his frustration with [the] lack of reliable data. He said he didn't know whether the Ferguson police shot one person a week, one a year, or one a century, and that in the absence of good data (quote), 'all we get are ideological thunderbolts, when what we need are ideological agnostics who use information to try to solve problems.' He's right.”

    — (James B. ComeyOpens in new window, Address on Race and Law Enforcement.)

  4. “There she stood on stage for all to see, showing off like the greedy songbird she was.”

    — (F. Murray AbrahamOpens in new window [from the movie Amadeus])

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