Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Catachretic Love

There's a rhetorical term called catachresis, which is rather hard to define. That is to say that like most rhetorical terms it has several different definitions that have amassed over a couple of millennia. Some authorities just say that is the misuse of a word - a malapropism. But others have the more interesting definition that it is a word wrenched out of its normal usage in a surprising, impossible metaphor.

The classic example of this is Hamlet's "I will look daggers at her". This was, of course, the origin of the phrase. Look daggers is the catachresis because... well how can you look daggers. Look isn't even a transistive verb - you look at the cat, you don't look the cat. So shouldn't it really be an adverb like look angrily? Of course it works. It works very well. Indeed it works because it's so damned surprising.

Another Shakespearean example is "Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon's pockets". That means Timon's broke. But it's a metaphor that sort of doesn't work, and therefore works really well. It's a use of language that's so wrong it's right.

Anyway, yesterday, in an e-mail conversation with The Antipodean, I was making a joke about song titles that contained the word love, when I realised how many of them were catachretic. For example, there's Leonard Cohen's Dance Me to the End of Love. That's a perfect catchresis. You would expect the sentence to end with a noun of space or time - Dance Me to the End of the Night or Dance Me to the End of the Street - and instead you get love, which isn't a place, unless you believe the Doors line "She lives on Love Street", which is another love-catachresis.

Robert Palmer has a catachretic amour: Doctor, Doctor, give me the news. I've got a bad case of loving you; but I don't think Addicted To Love is a catachresis, that's just a metaphor.

Love Minus Zero by Dylan is a definitely a catachresis. Dr Love by Bobby Sheen probably counts. Love Me Tender is a catachresis, because it should be Love Me Tenderly. And I'm pretty sure Crazy In Love is a catachresis. But...

Well, you can probably see that catachresis is a question of judgement. Rhetoricians will argue forever about how it exactly it differs from enallage (the substitution of one part of speech for another, so Love Me Tender counts). But if you can think of another catachretic love, please put it in the comments.

P.S.  Before someone points it out, I know Bad Case of Loving You is by Moon Martin.


  1. "Stop in the name of love"
    "Love will tear us apart"
    "Love don't live here anymore"
    "The game of love"
    "When love comes to town"

  2. 1 Corinthians 13: 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

    Seems O.K. to me. But now I am not sure.

  3. I have never understood the expression "hard lines".

    I always assumed I'd misheard them, but it seems common in football. It seems like a cross between "hard luck" and "over the line" with a plural added in for good measure.

  4. I have always assumed "What time is love" was catachretic.

  5. I also think that there's an improper, so to speak, enallage of ns and ls, or even catachresis of n in the word, as the correct spelling is enallage: εναλλαγή.

  6. Does "Love in the first degree" count?

  7. I am just going to go with Number 1's. (UK)
    Sugar Baby Love (Rubettes)1974
    Under the Moon of Love (Showaddywaddy) 1976
    You Can't Hurry Love (Phil Collins) 1981
    Caravan of Love (Housemartins) 1986
    ... I now feel not so much enlightened as old !!