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Catachresis (from Greek κατάχρησις), which literally means the incorrect or improper use of a word -- such as using the word decimate (e.g., "they were severely decimated") mistakenly for devastated -- is a term used to denote the (usually intentional) use of any figure of speech that flagrantly violates the norms of a language community. Compare malapropism.

Common forms of catachresis are:

  • Using a word to denote something radically different from its normal meaning.
'Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon's purse – Shakespeare, Timon of Athens
  • Using a word to denote something for which, without the catachresis, there is no actual name.
"a table's leg"
  • Using a word out of context.
'Can't you hear that? Are you blind?'
'The Quality of Mercy is not Buffy' – Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
To take arms against a sea of troubles... – Shakespeare, Hamlet
Arguably, however, this is perhaps neither a catachresis nor a mixed metaphor. In context, Hamlet is pondering futility: faced with a sea of troubles, taking up a sword and shield is not going to have an effect on the oncoming wave. In this sense, the quotation is a straightforward metaphor, albeit interpretable as a catachresis.

Catachresis is often used to convey extreme emotion or alienation, and is prominent in baroque literature and, more recently, in the avant-garde.

See also


es:Catacresis fr:Catachrèse it:Catacresi nl:Catachrese no:Katakrese pt:Catacrese ru:Катахреза sv:Katakres

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