Metalepsis

Metalepsis: A rhetorical figure which consists in the metonymical substitution of one word for another
Metalepsis: A rhetorical figure which consists in the metonymical substitution of one word for another and in so doing may then be held to illuminate, at long last, an otherwise elusive entity.

Definition and Examples of Metalepsis

Metalepsis (also known as “transumptio,” or “transumption” “the farrafet”; derives from Greek ‘meta,’ “change”, and ‘lambenein’ “to take,” literally “to change the sense”), is a rhetorical figure which consists in the metonymicalOpens in new window substitution of one word for another, and in so doing may then be held to illuminate, at long last, an otherwise elusive entity.

The substitution in metalepsis is often used to attribute a present effect to a remote cause, as when Amos states:

  • “And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities”
    — (Amos 4:6)

By this simple sentence, he has associated a causal relationship of “cleanness of teeth” with lack of food, connoting famine.

In metalepsis, reference is made to something by means of another thing that is remotely related to it, either through a causal relationship or through a series of figurative substitution. This figure is in many occasion used for comic effect through its preposterous exaggeration.

Metalepsis comprises several tropes in one word, as the following words of DidoOpens in new window, in Virgil, exemplifies:

  • ‘Happy, ah truly happy, had I been,
    If trojan ships our coasts had never seen.’

Here, by a MetonymyOpens in new window of the AdjunctOpens in new window, the ships are put for the Trojans in the ships; and these, by a SynecdocheOpens in new window of the whole, for AeneasOpens in new window, who was one of them; and again, his arriving on the coast, by a Metonymmy of the cause, for her seeing him; and lastly, her seeing him, by the same trope, for the passion she entertained for him. Her meaning therefore was, that, she would have been happy, had she never loved Aeneas.

Further Readings:
Silver Rhetoricae, Figures | MetalepsisOpens in new window; Quintilian (8.6. p. 37-38);
Susenbrotus (“metalepsis,” “transumptio” 1540 p. 11);
Sherry (“metalepsis,” “transsumptio,” “transsupcion” [sic] 1550, p. 41);
Wilson (“transumption” 1560, p. 200);
Peacham (1577) C4v; Putt. (“metalepsis,” “the farrefet” 1589, p. 193);
Day (1599 p. 79).