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catachrestic metaphor


catachrestic metaphor

Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (1975). See Examples and Observations, below.


(1) A word used in a figurative sense to remedy a gap in the lexicon; in Cicero's words, a metaphor "in which you take what you have not got from somewhere else."

(2) A type of strained metaphor that is logically misused but may be figuratively effective.

Critic Alan Singer has defined catachresis (or catachrestic metaphor) as "a trope that strayed beyond the field of contextual determinations warranting its usage" (A Metaphorics of Fiction, 1984).

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "As an illustration of how metaphor operates, [Walker Percy] describes an experience while hunting with his father in an Alabama forest. He saw an interesting bird that his black guide called a 'Blue Dollar Hawk.' His father later corrected this by saying that its real name was a 'Blue Darter Hawk.' Percy, however, liked 'Dollar' better than 'Darter' because it was a poetic, non-functional name. He probably also considered the guide more authoritative than his urban father [The Message in the Bottle, 82].

    "Percy identified this name as a catachrestic metaphor. A catachresis differs from the typical comparison metaphor in that there is no semantic connection between the name and its referent. The catachrestic metaphor is chosen because of its rhetorical color rather than the oblique message it conveys. . . . It is a metaphorical form that refers without any suggestion of a second meaning. Because, however, it has no semantic connection with its referent, the connection between them is not made by an act of cognitive comparison but by the intersubjective context of communication, the context of use."
    (Hugh C. White, "Metaphor as Performative." Reading Communities Reading Scripture: Essays in Honor of Daniel Patte, ed. by Gary A. Phillips and Nicole Wilkinson Duran. Trinity Press, 2002)

  • A Treacherous Game
    "I can't help thinking . . . that this hunt for the striking catachrestic metaphor in a poet of another time, such as Chaucer or Shakespeare, is a very treacherous game. For both the old poet and his modern reader are at the mercy of time's trick of canceling the poet's own hard-won figures and setting up new ones of its own. A word, by the very fact of its having been lost to common usage or by its having undergone a change in meaning, is apt to acquire thereby an unmerited potency."
    (Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do With the Other. Farrar, Straus, 1975)

  • Groups of Metaphors
    "A catachretic metaphor is used to fill a gap in the vocabulary. New discoveries are described by means of metaphors when no literal terms exist. . . .

    "When a science develops and new discoveries are made, new metaphors may be applied. . . .

    "Catachretic metaphors can be isolated metaphors, but very often we find groups of metaphors all taken from the same donor field. . . . Thus, where we find blood vessels-as-rivers, we also find tributaries, recanalisations, inflow, outflow, bridges, et cetera. It seems as if such metaphors are 'natural' extensions of the metaphorical images that were first--catachretically--introduced."
    (Geraldine W. van Rijn-van Tongeren, Metaphors in Medical Texts. Rodopi, 1997)

  • Remedying Lexical Gaps
    "There is a great variety of expressions often used as examples of metaphor that are nevertheless hardly ever felt as tropes. One common set uses body parts to represent the parts of material objects: 'leg of a table,' 'head of a pin,' 'eye of a needle,' 'foot of a mountain,' etc. . . . We cannot easily answer the question "if it is not the head (of a pin), then what is it?" With a true metaphor we can. . . . Max Black, along with most rhetoricians, considers them as types of catachresis which Black defines as the use of a word in a new sense in order to remedy a gap in the vocabulary."
    (J. David Sapir, "The Anatomy of Metaphor," in The Social Use of Metaphor, edited by J.D. Sapir and J.C. Crocker. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1977)
Pronunciation: kat-a-KREE-tic MET-ah-for
Also Known As: catachresis
Alternate Spellings: catachretic metaphor
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