Periphrasis

Definition & Examples of Periphrasis

Periphrasis is an expansive form of expression which consists when we use unnecessary words than what are necessary, and sometimes less plain words, either to avoid some inconvenience or to give a variety and elegance to our arguments and multiply the graces of our compositionOpens in new window.

Examples of Periphrasis

Some instances of which we have in Mr. Pope’s Art of Sinking in PoetryOpens in new window:

    Who would think that the following lines,
  • Bring forth some remnant of Promothean theft
    Quick to expand th’inclement air congeal’d
    By Boreas’ rude breath,
  • Should mean no more than ‘light the fire’?
  • And after having read over these stately verses,
    Apply thine engine to the spungy door,
    Set Bacchus from his glassy prison free,
    And stip white Ceres of her nut-brown coat,
  • Does it not amaze us to find that nothing is meant than, uncork the bottle, and chip the bread?

For as in musicOpens in new window, an important word is rendered sweeter by the divisions which are run harmoniously upon it; so a periphrasis sweetens a discourse, carried on in propriety of language, and contributes very much to the ornamentOpens in new window of it, especially if there be no jarring or discord in it, but every part be judiciously and musically tempered. PlatoOpens in new window is sufficient to attest this observation, from a passage in the beginning of the Funeral OrationOpens in new window.

  • “They truly receive from us the honours they deserve; and, after they have received them, they go the way that fate ordains; being led out publickly by the city, and privately by their friends.”
  • Here, Plato calls Death, ‘the way that fate ordains’; and funeral rites, he calls ‘a public conducting from our country’ (by this circumlocution, Plato greatly heighten the sense by means of adding melody and sweetness to a common low thought).
    Consider another example, in like manner, by XenophonOpens in new window:
  • “You think labour the guide to a pleasant life: your souls are endowed with the best qualification, and becomes warriors. You prefer fame to every other consideration.”
  • (where he could have used: ‘you love to labour,’ he rather uses a Periphrasis, and says, ‘You think labour the guide to a pleasant life’; and, by a like circumlocutionOpens in new window, he gives a sublimity to his praise).
Important Hint! 

According to LonginusOpens in new window, “there is more danger in a Periphrasis than in any other Figure, unless it be used with moderation. An injudicious Periphrasis is spiritless, and is at no great deviate from emptiness and stupidity. Hence, it must be used judiciously, and in regards to sensitivity of the occasion.

Further Readings:
Thomas Gibbons, Rhetoric; Or, A View of Its Principal Tropes and Figures, in Their Origin [...] PeriphrasisOpens in new window;
Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. T. S. Dorsch (Middlesex, 1965), pp. 137 – 138;
Puttenham, Arte of English Poesie, p. 214;
Peacham, Garden of Eloquence, p. 49.