Wacky Word Wednesday: Zeugma

Appropriately (for Writing Bar) this week's wacky word describes a commonly used literary device. It's one most readers would immediately recognise on seeing it used, but may never have realised just how common, and clever, it is. It's zeugma, a rhetorical device where a single word is linked to two words in a sentence but is really only appropriate to one of them.

So, that makes a zeugma sound more like a grammatical error than a writing technique. But used well, the zeugma can add drama, humour and beauty to writing. The Macquarie Dictionary describes zeugma as “a figure of speech in which a verb is associated with two subjects or objects, or an adjective with two nouns, in a way that is unexpected”. Here's an example from Star Trek: The Next Generation:

“You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.”

Here, the word execute applies to laws and citizens, with shocking effect. It also shows how a zeugma can effectively use even the most subtle meaning of a verb (or adjective).

Zeugma comes from the Greek word zeugnynai meaning “to yoke” or to “join, unite”. So it's literally “yoking” two ideas together with the use of one word. It's seems to have come into use in English around the mid-15th century.

Here are some more literary examples of zeugmas:

“They covered themselves with dust and glory”
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain


“We were partners, not soul mates, two people who happened to be sharing a menu and a life.”
The Hundred Sectret Senses, Amy Tan


“She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.”
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens

So now that you've seen how the zeugma works, why don't you write one yourself? Post your zeugmatic example in the comments below.

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