Word of the week

Word of the week: zeugma

Zeugma is a figure of speech where a word (usually a verb) applies to at least two other words in different ways, for example “The barmaid gave me a pint of Guinness and an endearing smile” or “The grumpy barman gave me my change, and a scowl”. In this case we’re using the verb “to give” for something you can touch and for something you can’t touch. (And it’s St Patrick’s Day next week, so I’ll get the Guinness references in early.)

Like synecdoche (“Nice wheels”, “Nice threads” and so on), zeugma is the kind of word we were taught at school, in A-Level English. The meaning of the word didn’t stick in my mind back then, nor in the decades afterwards, although I looked it up many times. But for the last month it seems to have stuck, aided by looking out for examples, and discussing the idea with my 9 year old daughter after it came up somewhere (a Harry Potter book probably).

For me it’s a Bob Dylan line that provides the easiest example to remember. It’s on “Highway 61 Revisited”, one of the great albums, rarely far away from turntable, cassette player or CD player in the last 30 years or more. It’s from “Queen Jane Approximately”: “Now when all the clowns that you have commissioned / Have died in battle or in vain”.

The word has probably featured on “QI” at some point but I’ve never heard it in day-to-day speech: none of my friends or family use it conversationally. I thought it was pronounced “zoygma” but this YouTube pronunciation clip suggests it’s “zyugma” – the “u” is pronounced as in “use”, or “zoogma” in American pronunciation.

You might find it easier to think of examples of zeugma than synecdoche, once you get started.

She left in a hurry, and a bright pink dress.

He took his time, and his friend’s wallet.

We grew lettuce and tomatoes, and bored.

I opened the door, and my heart.

He lives in West London, and in hope.

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